A SUICIDE bomber has detonated a truck packed with explosives at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, killing at least 60 people in a brazen attack in the heart of Pakistan's capital.
Police said 200 people were also wounded in the massive explosion, which ruptured a gas pipeline and triggered a huge blaze that engulfed the heavily-guarded site in flames.
Many victims leapt to their deaths from the upper floors of the hotel to escape the fire, a senior security official said, and there were fears more were buried in the debris.
Officials said they were worried that the hotel, a key meeting place for foreigners, would collapse.
The attack came hours after new President Asif Ali Zardari - who faces a serious challenge in reining in al-Qaeda and Taliban militants - delivered his first address to parliament, which is just a few hundred metres away.
So far, two of the dead are known to be foreigners and there are reports foreign victims are being treated in three of the city's hospitals.
Smoke and flames were shooting out of several floors of the ruined hotel. An AFP photographer saw mutilated bodies amid the carnage before police and fire officials pushed back the media in case the building came down.
"The death toll is 60 and it may go up," said a senior security official, who asked not to be named.
The bombing came as the Marriott's restaurants were packed with families breaking their daily Ramadan fast. The security official said women, children and foreigners were among the dead.
The Government ordered the army in to help clear away the piles of concrete and debris after the powerful explosion, which left a huge crater about six metres deep and 12 metres wide, at the hotel's main entrance.
Interior ministry official Rehman Malik told reporters the Government had received word of a possible attack near the parliamentary offices.
"We had intelligence reports two days ago that some incident might take place."
It was one of the worst attacks ever in Islamabad, and came amid an escalating campaign of bombings and suicide attacks by militants that has killed more than 1200 people in the past year.
IntelCenter, a US organisation that tracks militants, said an al-Qaeda leader who claimed responsibility for a previous bombing in Pakistan threatened new attacks in a video this month to mark the anniversary of September 11.
Pakistan has been a key ally in the US-led "war on terror" since 9/11, even though critics have repeatedly insisted that elements of the country's powerful intelligence service give clandestine backing to Islamist militants.
The Bush administration has accused Taliban Islamic militants and al-Qaeda followers of using the country's unruly border areas as bases from which to direct a growing deadly insurgency in neighbouring Afghanistan.
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