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Pakistani officials: At least five killed, 65 wounded in hotel bombing in northwestern Peshawar

PESHAWAR, Pakistan - Suicide attackers in a truck launched an assault Tuesday on a luxury hotel commonly used by foreigners in Peshawar, firing guns as they stormed past guards and then setting off a huge blast that killed at least five people and wounded 65 more, Pakistani officials said.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan - Suicide attackers in a truck launched an assault Tuesday on a luxury hotel commonly used by foreigners in Peshawar, firing guns as they stormed past guards and then setting off a huge blast that killed at least five people and wounded 65 more, Pakistani officials said.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in the largest city in Pakistan's restive northwest, but it fit the pattern of recent attacks the Taliban said it launched in retaliation for a military campaign against militants in the Swat Valley region.

Television footage showed part of the Pearl Continental Hotel had been demolished in the blast, reduced to concrete rubble and twisted steel. The scene was pandemonium, with armed police rushing around and Pakistani men standing by looking stunned. One man held a bloodied rag to his head.

A large crater was blasted into the ground.

An AP reporter saw six foreigners being helped out of the hotel. They all had wounds and at least two of them had bandages around their heads. One of them said, "We work for UNHCR," referring to the U.N.'s refugee organization. He also said that officials from U.N.'s World Food Program were also staying at the hotel.

Amjad Jamal, spokesman for the World Food Program in Pakistan, said more than 25 U.N. workers were staying at the hotel when the attack occurred. He said all seven WFP workers were safe, but he could not speak for other U.N. agencies. Calls to the U.N. refugee agency were not immediately answered.

Witnesses described three men riding in a truck approaching the main gate of the hotel and opening fire at security guards before driving inside, police official Liaqat Ali said.

Saleem Khan, a hotel security guard who was wounded in the attack, said at a nearby hospital: "They started firing on our security guards, we started firing on them after that. They reached near the building and then blew up the vehicle."

The method of attack matched that of a May 27 attack on buildings belonging to police and a regional headquarters of Pakistan's top intelligence agency in the eastern city of Lahore, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility. In that attack, a small group opened fire on security guards to get through a guard post, then detonated an explosive-laden van.

Sahibzada Anis, a top government official in Peshawar, said at least five people were killed. Another police official Ghulam Mohammad Khan said that so far 65 wounded people had been shifted to various hospitals.

An injured man, Jawad Chaudhry, said he was in his room on the ground floor when he heard gunshots and then a big bang.

"The floor under my feet shook. I thought the roof was falling on me. I ran out. I saw everybody running in panic," he said. "There was blood and pieces of glass everywhere."

He said he several people were lying on floor with wounds, and some of them seemed to be unconscious.

Jamal Khan, a chef at the hotel, blundered out, covered in dust and his apron spattered with blood.

"I was busy as usual cooking when I heard a deafening bang," he said. "I tumbled and hit a wall. I do not know how I managed to come out. I just heard people crying in pain and crying for help."

The Pearl Continental, affectionately called the "PC" by Pakistanis, is relatively well-guarded and set far back from the main road and overlooking a golf course and a historic fort. It is located just over a mile (2 kilometres) from the city's airport.

Parking in front of the structure is heavily restricted, and to get to the front doors of the building, a car has to undergo security checks and travel around concrete and metal barriers.

The hotel is a favourite place for foreigners and elite Pakistanis to stay and socialize, making it a high-profile target for militants.

A senior police officer, Shafqatullah Malik, said initial calculations suggested the blast was caused by more than half a ton (500 kilograms) of explosive such RDX, a powerful industrial and military explosive.

Last year, a massive bombing at Islamabad's Marriott Hotel killed more than 50 people and wounded dozens, rattling the nation.

Farahnaz Ispahani, spokeswoman for President Asif Ali Zardari and the ruling party, condemned the attack.

"We will not bow down. We will not be cowed by these people," she said. "We will root them out. We will fight them and we will win. This is Pakistan's unity and integrity that is at stake."

Lou Fintor, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, said all diplomatic personnel were accounted for. "At this point we have no reports that any Americans were at the scene," he said.

Northwest provincial information minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain said the attack was likely in retaliation for the offensive against the Taliban in Swat, which the military says it is winning.

The military offensive in Swat and surrounding districts began in late April, and officials have blamed a handful of suicide attacks since on Taliban attempts to seek revenge.

The biggest attack over the past month came in the eastern city of Lahore at the headquarters of Pakistan's top intelligence agency and a police centre, killing 30 people. Three bombings the next day killed 14 people in Peshawar and Dera Ismail Khan, another northwestern city.

Nonetheless, there appears to still be generally broad support for the Swat offensive, which the military says has killed more than 1,300 militants.

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Associated Press Writers Asif Shahzad and Nahal Toosi in Islamabad contributed to this report.

 
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