ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Gunmen kidnapped Afghanistan’s top diplomat to Pakistan on Monday after killing his driver, underscoring worsening security in the nuclear-armed country two days after a suicide bomber killed 53 people.
British Airways said it had suspended flights to Pakistan because of security fears after the Saturday evening truck-bomb attack on Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel.
Arabiya television reported that the little-known group Fedayeen Islam (Partisans of Islam) claimed responsibility for the Marriott bombing, Islamabad’s worst attack, in a tape played over the telephone to its correspondent in the Pakistan capital.
Arabiya said the group made several demands, including that Pakistan stop cooperating with the United States. It said the authenticity of the tape could not be verified and the group is not known to have claimed other attacks.
Before the group claimed responsibility, Pakistan’s government had said it expected investigations into the bombing would lead to al Qaeda and Taliban militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the Afghan border.
A U.S. counterterrorism official, contacted by email at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. base, said al Qaeda or an affiliated group remained prime suspects in the bombing.
Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik said President Asif Ali Zardari, as well as the prime minister and army commander, had been due to attend a dinner at the hotel on the night of the attack but the venue was changed on the prime minister’s advice.
The Czech ambassador and at least three other foreigners were among those killed in the blast, which wounded 266 people and which security officials said bore the hallmarks of al Qaeda.
The blast reinforced investors’ negative attitudes after months of political uncertainty, a currency dealer said.
The beleaguered Pakistani rupee sank to a new low, trading at 78.55 to the dollar before closing at 78.21/28. The rupee has lost 21.2 percent against the dollar this year.
The Afghan consul general in the northwestern city of Peshawar, Abdul Khaliq Farahi, was seized after gunmen ambushed his car and killed his driver. Gunmen opened fire on a U.S. diplomat in the city last month.
“Masked gunmen intercepted his vehicle and took him away after killing his driver,” said consulate official Noor Mohammad Takal. “It’s a very serious incident. The Pakistani government needs to give security to diplomats.”
Pakistan said it was taking all measures to recover Farahi, who is due to take over as ambassador to Pakistan, safely.
Shortly before the attack in Peshawar, a British Airways spokesman said the airline had suspended its six flights a week to Pakistan while the company reviewed security.
The Marriott bombing has raised fresh calls for Pakistan’s government to rethink its unpopular alliance with the United States and military operations against Islamist militants, which many Pakistanis blame for inciting violence.
Pakistan’s army is in the midst of an offensive against militants in the Bajaur region on the Afghan border, while the United States has intensified attacks on militants on the Pakistani side of the border, infuriating the Pakistani army.
A security official said troops had fired at two U.S. helicopters that intruded into Pakistani air space on Sunday night, forcing them back to Afghanistan.
Troops were attacking militant hideouts in the Bajaur region where the government says more than 600 militants have been killed in fighting since August.
A suicide bomber killed five paramilitary soldiers in the Swat Valley while police said they killed nine militants in a clash in a town near Peshawar.
A senior opposition politician, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, said the government should reject U.S. pressure to fight militants, halt offensives and “sit down at the same table” and negotiate peace.
“The government must immediately end any military intervention in the tribal areas,” Sharif said in an interview with Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper.
“I condemn the Marriott attack, but condemnation is not sufficient to straighten things out. We must avoid the pressures of the United States and think for ourselves,” he said.
Among the foreigners killed on Saturday were a Vietnamese woman and two members of the U.S. armed forces assigned to the U.S. embassy.
A U.S. State Department employee was unaccounted for and Denmark’s security service said one of its staff, attached to the Danish mission, was missing and presumed dead.
The Interior Ministry said 11 foreigners were among the wounded after the bomber blew up a truck packed with 600 kg (1,320 lb) of explosives, including artillery shells.
A political analyst said the severity of Saturday’s bombing should have convinced more people that the military was not just fighting America’s war despite skepticism about security policy.
Shafqat Mahmood, a former government minister and analyst, said authorities could take advantage of anger over the attack.
“This is a popular government not a military government, it has support among the people. They can mobilize their support for fighting real challenges,” he said.
Financial analysts said the bombing would be a blow for foreign investment but not a severe one unless it marked the beginning of a new phase of violence.
Additional reporting by Augustine Anthony and Sahar Ahmed and Gulf Newsroom; writing by Robert Birsel; editing by Tim Pearce