ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A suicide car bomber attacked the Marriott Hotel in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, on Saturday, killing at least 40 people and turning the hotel into an inferno, police said.
As flames engulfed the hotel, which is popular with foreigners, police said there were still people trapped inside.
"A car laden with explosives rammed the gate at the Marriott and so far we have brought out 40 dead bodies, but the number could well be higher," police chief Asghar Raza Gardazi said.
Hours before the blast President Asif Ali Zardari, making his first address to parliament, a few hundred meetres to the east of the hotel, said terrorism had to be rooted out.
Dozens of cars outside the hotel were destroyed and windows were shattered in buildings hundreds of metres away.
Al Qaeda-linked militants based in hideouts in the Afghan border have launched a bloody campaign of bomb attacks in retaliation for offensives by the security forces.
The hotel has been bombed twice before but the Saturday evening blast was the most serious in the Pakistani capital since the country joined the U.S.-led campaign against militancy in late 2001.
Fire began in at least two places in the building and spread to other parts of the 290-room hotel, located at the foot of the Margalla hills in the city centre.
A crater up to 20 feet deep was blasted into the road next to the hotel's security barriers. The street was littered with debris and broken branches from roadside trees, and acrid smoke drifted in the air.
"EVERYBODY STARTED SCREAMING"
The explosion brought down the ceiling in a banquet room where there were about 200 to 300 people at a meal to break the fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
Imtiaz Gul, a journalist, was among them.
"We just ran for cover, I could see a lot of injured people lying around me," Gul said.
A waiter, Mansoor Abbasi, was inside hotel after the blast, calling out for any survivors lying in the rubble.
"I was just setting down a glass when it happened ... Everybody started screaming. I pulled out 16 wounded people," said Abbasi said, his jacket stained with blood.
A doctor at a city hospital said 70 wounded people had been brought in. An official at another hospital said 23 bodies and 97 wounded people had been brought in.
Dawn Television said several foreigners were wounded.
The owner of the hotel said the vehicle carrying the bomb was stopped at the front barrier and was being checked by guards after a bomb-sniffing dog raised the alarm.
"The guard dog alerted them and when they started searching the vehicle the man blew himself up," the owner, Sadruddin Hashwani, told reporters outside the hotel.
Zardari, the widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, is close to the United States and had earlier vowed to maintain nuclear-armed Pakistan's commitment to the U.S.-led campaign against militancy, even though it is deeply unpopular.
In his address to parliament, he said Pakistan must stop militants from using its territory for attacks on other countries.
He also said Pakistan would not tolerate infringement of its territory in the name of the fight against militancy.
Zardari won a presidential election this month to replace firm U.S. ally Pervez Musharraf who stepped down in August under threat of impeachment.