Investigators searched a wrecked luxury hotel in northwestern Pakistan on Wednesday for clues after a bold suicide bombing that killed 11 people, including aid workers, in what the U.N. condemned as a "heinous terrorist attack."
At least three suicide attackers shot their way past guards and set off the explosion late Tuesday outside the Peshawar Pearl Continental, a favorite spot for foreigners and well-off Pakistanis and a site that the U.S. was considering for its consulate.
Some 11 people died and 70 were wounded. No one immediately claimed responsibility, but the blast followed Taliban threats to carry out major attacks in large cities to avenge an army offensive against insurgents in the nearby Swat Valley.
The attack reduced a section of the hotel to concrete rubble and twisted steel and left a huge crater in a parking lot. Senior police official Safwat Ghayur said counterterrorism experts, police and intelligence agents were sifting through the rubble for clues Wednesday.
The Pearl Continental, affectionately called the "PC" by Pakistanis, is the ritziest hotel in this rugged frontier city of 2.2 million. It is near government buildings, overlooks a golf course and a historic fort.
It has also been relatively well-guarded and set far back from the main road.
Citing witness accounts, police said three men in a pickup truck approached the hotel's main gate, opened fire at security guards, rushed inside and detonated the bomb close to the building late Tuesday. The truck was carrying more than half a ton of explosives, senior police officer Shafqatullah Malik estimated.
The chaotic scene echoed a bombing last year at Islamabad's Marriott Hotel that killed more than 50 people. Both hotels were favored places for foreigners and elite Pakistanis to stay and socialize, making them high-profile targets for militants despite tight security.
In Washington, two senior U.S. officials said the State Department had been in negotiations with the hotel's owners to either purchase or sign a long-term lease to the facility to house a new American consulate in Peshawar. The officials said they were not aware of any sign that U.S. interest in the compound had played a role in its being targeted.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the negotiations were not public and had not been completed. They said no immediate decision had been made on whether to go ahead with plans to base the consulate on the hotel grounds.
North West Frontier Province Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain told The Associated Press early Wednesday that officials were reporting 11 deaths in the blast. Other police and government officials could confirm only five dead. The three attackers also died, said an intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The U.N. identified a staff member as among the dead: Aleksandar Vorkapic, 44, from Belgrade, Serbia, who was part of a team sent by the world body to help with a massive refugee crisis. Also killed was UNICEF staffer Perseveranda So, 52, from the Philippines, who was working on educational programs for girls, the children's agency said.
Peshawar district coordination officer Sahibzada Anis said the blast wounded three others working for the U.N. agency — a Briton, a Somali and a German.
U.N. officials either could not be reached or declined to comment Wednesday on whether they would be scaling back their programs in Pakistan. Such a move could have significant consequences now because of the refugee crisis resulting from the military offensive in Swat.
More than 2 million people have been displaced by the fighting in the valley, and many are now staying in sweltering relief camps.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday condemned the "heinous terrorist attack" in "the strongest possible terms," U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said at U.N. headquarters in New York.
There have been no reports of any Americans wounded or killed in the attack. The U.S. Embassy has in recent days warned its staff to avoid or limit travel to Peshawar.
Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor said Wednesday that the U.S. "is steadfast in its support of the government of Pakistan and of its efforts to combat terrorism."