ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) -- A massive suicide truck bomb gutted the heavily guarded Marriott Hotel in Pakistan's capital Saturday, killing at least 40 people and wounding hundreds. Dozens more were feared dead inside the building that was still burning hours after the attack.
The targeting of the American hotel chain appeared to be one of the largest terrorist attacks ever in Pakistan and came at a time of growing anger in Pakistan over a wave of cross-border strikes on militant bases by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The bomb left a vast crater some 30 feet deep in front of the main building, where rescuers ferried a stream of bloodied bodies. The fire was still burning six hours after the blast and had devastated most of the five-story hotel, sending up a thick pall of smoke over the area.
"The fire has eaten the entire building," said Mohammed Ali, an emergency service official at the scene. He said that after an initial chaotic search to find survivors, rescue teams had only been able to make two brief forays inside but found no bodies or survivors and had to retreat quickly.
The bombing came just hours after President Asif Ali Zardari made his first address to Parliament, less than a mile away from the hotel, and days ahead of the new leader's meeting with President Bush Tuesday in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
Rehman Malik, head of Pakistan's Interior Ministry, told the AP authorities had received intelligence that there might be militant activity timed to coincide with Zardari's inaugural address and security had been tightened.
Zardari reappeared after midnight on state television to condemn the "cowardly attack."
He said he understood the victims' pain because he had buried his own wife - assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto - in December.
"Make this pain your strength," he said. "This is a menace, a cancer in Pakistan which we will eliminate. We will not be scared of these cowards," he said.
Witnesses and officials said the truck exploded about 60 feet away from the hotel at two heavy metal barriers blocking the entrance. It went off at about 8 p.m., when four restaurants inside would have been packed with diners at the hour that Muslims break their daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
The Marriott had been a favorite place for foreigners as well as Pakistani politicians and business people to stay and socialize in Islamabad despite repeated militant attacks on the hotel. One American was confirmed among the dead.
Earlier, a U.S. State Department official led three colleagues through the rubble from the charred building, one of them bleeding heavily from a wound on the side of his head.
One of the four, who identified himself only as Tony, said they had been moving toward the rear of a Chinese restaurant inside the hotel after a first, small blast when a second explosion hurled them against the back wall.
"Then we saw a big truck coming to the gates," he said. "After that, it was just smoke and darkness."
Mohammed Asghar, a worker from a nearby office with a makeshift bandage round his head, said there was more than one man in the truck and that they had argued with the hotel guards.
"Then there was a flash of light, the truck caught fire and then exploded with an enormous bang," he said.
Mohammad Sultan, a hotel employee, said he was in the lobby when something exploded. He fell down and everything temporarily went dark.
"I didn't understand what it was, but it was like the world is finished," he said.
Senior police official Asghar Raza Gardaizi said rescuers had counted at least 40 bodies at the scene and that he feared that there "dozens more dead inside."
Associated Press reporters saw at least nine bodies scattered at the scene. Scores of people, including foreigners, were running out - some of them stained with blood.
Information Minister Sherry Rehman said 250 people were wounded. Two hospitals said 10 foreigners were among those in their treatment, including one each from Germany, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Afghanistan.
Pakistan faces a raging insurgency by the Taliban in the border areas, where Western governments worry that al-Qaida militants could be plotting more attacks on their cities. Security officials say the two groups work together to carry out attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Though there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast, officials have warned that the U.S. cross-border raids on Pakistani territory could fuel violent extremism.
President Bush said the attack was "a reminder of the ongoing threat faced by Pakistan, the United States, and all those who stand against violent extremism." "We will fully support the democratically elected government of Pakistan and the Pakistani people as they face enormous challenges economically as well as from terrorism," he said.
IntelCenter, a group which monitors al-Qaida communications, said senior al-Qaida leader Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, who claimed the June Danish Embassy bombing in Islamabad, threatened additional attacks against Western interests in Pakistan in a video timed to the recent anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor said officials were trying to account for embassy staff and any other Americans affected.
Ambulances rushed to the area, picking their way through the charred carcasses of vehicles that had been in the street outside. Windows in buildings hundreds of yards away were shattered. Tropical fish from the tanks inside lay among the torn furnishings in the entrance area.
"We live in a dangerous world and this is a terrible tragedy. We grieve for those people who died, or were injured, and their families," Bill Marriott, chairman and CEO of Marriott International, said in a statement.
The hotel served as the headquarters for the international media during the 2001 war against the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. Its 290 rooms and suites and popular health club stood in a plot surrounded by government office buildings less than a mile from the president's office and Parliament. It had been targeted before.
In January 2007, a security guard blocked a suicide bomber who triggered a blast just outside the Marriott, killing the guard and wounding seven other people.
Pakistan has faced a wave of militant violence in recent months following army-led offensives against insurgents in its border regions, including several in the capital.
The country's deadliest suicide bombing was on Oct. 18, 2007 and targeted Bhutto, who survived. It killed some 150 people in Karachi during celebrations welcoming her home from exile. Bhutto was assassinated in a subsequent attack on Dec. 27.
On Aug. 21, 2008, suicide bombers blew themselves up at two gates into mammoth weapons factory in town of Wah, killing at least 67 people and wounding more than 70.
Associated Press writers Asif Shahzad, Zarar Khan, Munir Ahmad in Islamabad contributed to this report.