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Tue 23 Sep 2008 01:49 AM

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Pakistani leaders narrowly escaped Marriott blast

Last-minute switch of venue prevented annihilation of the country's leadership.

Pakistan's top leaders were due to have dinner at Islamabad's Marriott hotel on the night it was bombed but cheated death after switching venue at the last minute, a senior official said Monday.The hotel however denied the claim, made by interior ministry chief Rehman Malik, that President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and military top brass had narrowly escaped Saturday's devastating attack.

A suicide bomber rammed a truck packed with more than half a tonne of explosives into the security gates of the luxury hotel, killing at least 60 people and wounding more than 260 in a massive fireball.

In further indications of the unrest gripping Pakistan, gunmen abducted an Afghan diplomat and killed his driver in the northwestern city of Peshawar while Pakistani troops fired at two US helicopters near the Afghan border.

Nine troops died in a suicide car-bomb attack and more than 30 militants were killed in fighting in northwestern tribal regions, military and security officials said.

Malik told reporters that the speaker of the national assembly, or lower house of parliament, had arranged a dinner for Zardari, Gilani and armed services chiefs at the Marriott.

"The president and the prime minister changed the venue to the prime minister's house. The function was not held at the Marriott, thus the whole leadership was saved," Malik added.

But a spokesman for hotel owner Sadruddin Hashwani said there was no government reservation.

"I have checked from the management and the hotel administration, no booking had been made for an official dinner on that day," spokesman Jamil Khawar told newswire AFP.

An unknown group calling itself "Fedayeen of Islam" claimed responsibility for the bombing in a text message sent to an AFP reporter. There was no way of substantiating the claim and officials said they had not heard of the group.

Malik had Sunday blamed Al-Qaeda militants and their Taliban allies based in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan for the attack, and investigators said they were now hunting an Islamabad-based Al-Qaeda cell.

The attackers likely constructed the massive 600kg truck bomb at a safe house in the city, as all lorries entering the heavily guarded capital are searched at checkpoints, they said.

"Our focus at the moment is to track down the network in Islamabad which must have facilitated the movement and construction of the bomb," a senior official involved in the investigation told AFP.

Malik separately told AFP that investigators were examining dramatic video footage of the attack "shot by shot, second by second" for clues, as well as probing who owned the vehicle.

The footage showed the attacker failed to get through a barrier when he crashed his six-wheeler truck into the five-star hotel's security gates, before detonating a small blast that set off the larger explosion minutes later.

Two Americans, the Czech ambassador and a Vietnamese woman were among those killed in the blast, hospital officials and diplomats said. A Danish intelligence agent was still missing.

British Airways announced it was suspending its six flights a week to the capital because of the Marriott attack. The last BA flight was on Sunday.

Zardari, the widower of slain former premier Benazir Bhutto, promised to crack down on the "cancer" of militancy, and Pakistani forces are currently engaged in a bloody military operation in the tribal belt.

The unrest has spilled over into northwest Pakistan, where gunmen abducted Afghan consul Abdul Khaliq Farahi as he was travelling home and shot his driver in the head as he tried to resist, officials and witnesses said.

The kidnapping comes weeks after Zardari moved to ease tensions with Afghanistan over Pakistan's alleged failure to crack down on the militants - a problem also causing friction with Washington.

Security forces also opened fire on two US helicopters which violated Pakistani airspace in the tribal belt on Sunday, the latest in a string of such incidents including an incursion by ground troops in September, officials said.

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