A massive truck bomb devastated the Marriott hotel in a high-security neighborhood of the Pakistani capital Saturday, engulfing the building in flames. (Photo Reuters)

Over 50 people were killed and hundreds wounded when a massive truck bomb devastated the Marriott hotel in a high-security neighborhood of the Pakistani capital Saturday, engulfing the building in flames.

The terrorist attack, one of the worst in Pakistan’s history, occurred just a few blocks away from the prime minister’s residence, where the country’s top civil and military leaders were attending a dinner after President Asif Ali Zardari addressed a joint session of parliament. With many people trapped inside the hotel, the death toll is expected to rise. Three Americans were among the wounded.

Pakistan Taliban Movement, a little-known Islamist militant outfit, claimed responsibility. The attack came as Pakistani forces stepped up an operation against militants in Pakistan’s tribal region and areas in northwestern Pakistan.

The hotel was a popular place for foreign tourists, journalists and businesspeople, as well as with well-heeled Pakistanis. It has been the target of less devastating attacks in the past. Anti-American sentiments are running high in Pakistan after an increase U.S. missile attacks from pilotless drones against suspected militant hideouts inside Pakistan’s tribal region. The attacks also have killed civilians. And there was widespread outrage, among Pakistani civilians as well as politicians and military leaders, at a U.S. commando raid across the border on a suspected militant hideout.

Witnesses and police said the bomber rammed an explosive-laden vehicle into the front gate of the hotel; the bomb left a crater about 30 feet deep and 15 feet wide. The hotel has tight security for vehicles.

“The bomber fired several shots in the air when his entry inside the gate was blocked,” said Mohammed Ismail, a security guard who was on duty at the hotel. “There was a massive explosion shaking the entire structure. Several guards were blown to pieces.”

A driver standing in the hotel parking said people rushed out from the building crying for help. Many more were trapped inside at the hotel burst into flame to the point where police warned that the building could collapse. “The entire area was enveloped under heavy smoke. Bodies were scattered all around,” said Mohammed Farooq, the driver. “Scores of people, including foreigners, were running out, some of them stained with blood.”

Islamabad’s police chief said rescuers had counted at least 40 bodies at the scene and he feared dozens of other bodies were still inside the smoldering building. Police said the death toll could be more than 100.

The five-story hotel is blocks away from parliament, the president’s house and the prime minister’s house.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Zardari said the government’s was determined to combat tackle the increasing terrorist problem. He also said Pakistan would not tolerate any infringements of its sovereignty, a reference to the recent U.S. incursion. And he outlined a series of measures the government would take shortly to shore up Pakistan’s ailing economy. There has been a sharp rise in capital flight from the country because of the deteriorating security situation.

“We will start a new beginning and effective measures will be taken soon to redress the economic woes,” Mr. Zardari said.

Pakistan’s fiscal deficit has ballooned because of higher oil subsidies and an increase in defense spending. Inflation has also shot up while growth is slowing, prompting nervous investors to dump local stocks and in turn punish the Pakistani rupee, which is currently trading near all-time lows against the U.S. dollar.

The government has removed all subsidies on oil and plans to introduce steps to restore the confidence of domestic and foreign investors in the local financial markets, Mr. Zardari said, without elaborating. The federal government will also take steps to improve agricultural output and crop acreage to protect the interests of farmers, he said.

Islamabad has seen a series of terrorist attacks over the last year, targeting security forces and foreign nationals. In July, a suicide bombing killed at least 18 people, most of them members of the security forces. In June, a suicide car bomber killed at least six people near the Danish Embassy. A statement attributed to al Qaeda took responsibility for that blast. In mid-March, a bomb exploded at an Italian restaurant, killing a Turkish woman.

Mr. Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani strongly condemned the attack, saying the bombing will strengthen the government resolve to fight terrorism.

Wall Street Journal