Zardari Delivers First Address To Parliament

Newly elected President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, gave his first speech as president before the Pakistani parliament on Saturday. Barely settled into his new job, Zardari has already been engulfed by a political crisis triggered by American military strikes inside Pakistani territory.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, frustrations grow in Galveston. But first, a tremendous explosion apparently touched off by a massive truck bomb devastated a Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan today. At least 40 people are dead, more than 100 have been injured, and authorities believe that many more people were trapped in the burning building. They expect the death toll to rise.

NPR's Philip Reeves was about two miles away when the blast occurred. He got to the scene a short time later.

PHILIP REEVES: I'm standing next to a crater that is a least 20 feet deep and 40 feet wide, and I'm looking at a hotel, which is hundreds of yards long in its facade, and all of that facade is either smoking or fiercely burning, creating a huge bloom of smoke above me.

SIMON: Philip Reeves continues to report from the blast site and joins us live. Philip, thanks for being with us.

REEVES: Sure.

SIMON: I wonder what the latest developments are.

REEVES: Well, a lot of people there are trying to - people are apparently trapped inside the hotel. The army has been called in to see whether they can get them out. The hotel is in essence totally destroyed, even feared that it could collapse. I was able to speak to one or two people who were actually in the hotel at the time, including a chef. He works in the Lebanese Restaurant, a gentleman called Muhammad Sayid(ph), who was standing there in his work chef's uniform, which was spotted in blood, and he described to me what happened when the bombs went off.

MUHAMMAD SAYID: So first was one small explosion. Then I went outside. I saw this - and after that my restaurant manager said, you go inside, maybe there is blast. And then I came little bit inside restaurant, then huge blast.

REEVES: After speaking to him, a moment later I was standing there and the fireservice were dragging one dead body out of the wreckage. What was striking about that is that I was perhaps the only person who saw that body come out. I think there are so many people who have been injured or killed by this devastating blast that the rescue services are overwhelmed right now.

SIMON: Philip, this Marriott Hotel has been struck by an attempted bombing before. What might make it a target to some people?

REEVES: It's a place where the wealthy members of the Pakistani elite, if you like, from Islamabad, often gather. That includes the political elite. It is a favorite with Westerners. Often you get journalists staying there and also members of the international community, generally, although that might have altered because it was, as you said, targeted some months ago by a suicide bomber who tried to detonate the hotel by attacking the entrance and was stopped by a guard who was killed in that attack. This, however, was a much, much larger assault.

So it's an international hotel. It will be seen as an attack on Westerners, although I fear many Pakistanis were fallen victim tonight to this terrible attack.

SIMON: And let's remind ourselves, there's the - if you please, unhappy confluence of what otherwise might be celebrated events. You have, certainly, the last day of Ramadan and you have the - really the first day of Mr. Zardari's rule of Pakistan.

REEVES: Yes, and on that front, Iftar, the feast that Muslims have after a day of fasting during Ramadan, appears to be taking place at around the time that the bomb was struck. I was told by people at the scene, though, that luckily, a lot of people who were having the Iftar meal in the hotel were around the back, in the garden area, where they have some marquees erected.

Yes, it also coincided with the speech in parliament today by the new president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, and it will be seen very much in the context of the conflict that's been raging in northwestern Pakistan and the tribal areas, between the army and the U.S., of course, and Islamic militants there.

SIMON: NPR's Philip Reeves, who's reporting from the scene of an apparent suicide car bomb attack in Islamabad, Pakistan. Philip, thank you very, very much for being with us.

REEVES: You're welcome.

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