Pakistani president and PM just miss hotel bomb blast
Last-minute change of mind saved Zardari and Gillani from Marriott carnage
The new Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, and his prime minister were due to dine at the Marriott hotel on the night it was devastated by a huge truck bomb, it was revealed today.
An interior ministry spokesman, Rehman Malik, said Zardari and Yousaf Raza Gillani had changed their plans at the last minute and decided to meet at the prime minister`s house instead.
Malik declined to elaborate on why the decision was made.
News of the near miss for Zadari and Gillani came as British Airways halted all flights to Pakistan because of security fears raised by Saturday night`s bombing in Islamabad.
"We have temporarily suspended our flight operations in Pakistan," a BA spokesman said. "The safety of our customers, crew and aircraft is of paramount importance."
The last flight to Islamabad, the only Pakistani destination served by BA, left yesterday.
A scheduled departure from London`s Heathrow airport tomorrow has been cancelled and the airline is still assessing whether or not to go ahead with a flight on Wednesday.
Tensions remained high in Pakistan with Afghanistan`s ambassador-designate to the country, Abdul Khaliq Farahi, kidnapped today in the north-western city of Peshawar by gunmen who ambushed his car and killed his driver.
At least 53 people were killed and 266 wounded in the Marriott attack after a bomber blew up a lorry containing 600kg (1,322lb) of explosives at a gateway to the complex. The explosion left a crater 20 metres (65ft) wide and 8 metres (26ft) deep.
The body of the Czech ambassador, Ivo Zdarek, was among those pulled from the rubble. Zdarek, 47, moved to Islamabad last month.
Two Americans, said to be US defence department employees, were also killed in the blast but their identities have not been revealed.
The Danish intelligence agency said last night that one of its agents, a security adviser, was missing after the attack and was presumed dead.
Six British citizens, including a child, have been treated in hospital for their injuries. Two were hit by flying glass in a bakery half a mile from the hotel.
Of the six, two were still under observation in hospital, while the others were discharged with superficial injuries. Three of the injured worked for the British high commission in the city.
The bombing happened after dusk on Saturday when hundreds of people were dining in several restaurants inside the hotel.
Closed-circuit television footage showed the driver of the lorry ramming into the security gates but failing to breach a second barrier.
The British embassy, one of the largest in the world and employing 150 British workers, was functioning as normal today.
The foreign secretary, David Miliband, said the bombing would only reinforce Britain`s determination to combat terrorism in the country.
"This latest bombing attack in Islamabad is yet another shocking and disgraceful attack without justification," he said. "We continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the government of Pakistan against the violent extremists who have no answers but only offer death and mayhem. This horrific attack reinforces our shared determination to tackle violent extremism."
The Conservative party leader, David Cameron, who recently visited Pakistan, said: "This attack underlines why Britain and Pakistan must work together at every level to defeat terrorism and to send a clear message to the terrorists that we will remain steadfast in the face of the threat from terrorism."
The prime minister, Gordon Brown, joined the condemnation. "We already work with the Pakistan government in giving help with counter-terrorism operations; we will continue to do that," he told Sky News.
"But, as I was saying to the president of Pakistan a few days ago, we are going to have to step up the cooperation between our two countries, and with other countries, so that we can deal with this terrorist threat."
The blast occurred at the heavily guarded hotel just days after Zardari visited 10 Downing Street for talks.
It also comes against a backdrop of increasing tension between the US and Pakistan after it was revealed that American ground troops had made incursions into Pakistani territory from Afghanistan to fight militants without permission from Islamabad.
Pakistani security services have recently stepped up military action against al-Qaida and Taliban forces along the Afghan border.