KARACHI: A suicide car bomber rammed into a diplomatic vehicle outside the US consulate in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi, killing an American diplomat and four other people, officials said.
The attack came two days before US President George W. Bush was due to make a high-security visit to Pakistan, an important ally in the US-led "war on terror".
Bush himself announced that a US diplomat had died in the attack at a news conference in the Indian capital New Delhi, where he is on the second leg of a South Asian tour that has also taken in Afghanistan.
"I have been briefed on the bombings and we have lost at least one US citizen in the bombings -- a foreign service officer," Bush said following talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
But he vowed to continue with his visit, saying "terrorists and killers are not going to prevent me from going to Pakistan".
A Pakistan security official told AFP on condition of anonymity that a US consulate vehicle "was apparently hit by a suicide car bomber, blowing it into the air".
"The car flew through the air and fell on the other side of a seven-foot high wall. One diplomat was killed and two other US diplomats were in it," he said, adding that their Pakistani driver was also killed.
The blast ripped through the car park of the nearby five-star Marriott Hotel in the city`s highest security zone, destroying at least 10 cars, damaging others, including some from the US mission, and smashing windows.
"We are investigating the motives behind the blasts but apparently it coincided with the visit of Bush," said Salahuddin Haider, spokesman for the government of Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital.
Information minister Sheikh Rashid said the attack was the work of extremists who wanted to create problems in this region. "This attack will not impact the visit of President Bush," he told AFP.
Islamic militants opposed to President Pervez Musharraf`s close ties to Bush have launched frequent attacks on the US consulate. A suicide car bomb outside the building in June 2002 killed 12 Pakistanis.
Haider said there was only one "powerful" bomb in Thursday`s attack and that an exploding petrol tank caused a second, low-intensity blast heard shortly afterwards.
Clouds of black smoke spewed from the blazing cars in the Marriott car park and charred vehicle parts were strewn across the area as paramedics and firefighters rushed to the scene.
Scores of police cordoned off the site, which is only separated from the US consulate by a small lane.
Karachi police Assistant Superintendent Javed Akbar said five people were killed. A headless body was found near the damaged wall of the Marriott, he said, adding that the toll could rise.
Civilians and soldiers push a car from a hotel parking lot after a bomb blast outside a five star hotel in Karachi
Officials said a paramilitary soldier on security duty was also among the dead and another body was stuck in one of the damaged cars.
Hospitals in Karachi said at least 46 people were wounded, including five paramilitary troops and four police. Many of the wounded had burn injuries, officials said.
Akbar said the blast was so powerful that it left a crater three feet deep and 10 feet wide. Parts of the blazing car ended up inside the hotel lobby, he said.
A number of shops at the upscale Sheraton hotel close to the site suffered blast damage and the wall of the Pakistan Navy hospital was also hit.
Bush made a trouble-free stopover in neighbouring Afghanistan on Wednesday before flying to New Delhi. He is due in Islamabad at the weekend.
Volatile Karachi has been wracked by extremist and sectarian bloodshed for two decades.
As well as the June 2002 suicide attack, a lone gunman opened fire on a police post next to the US consulate in February 2003, killing three policemen.
In May 2004 police discovered a car filled with high-powered liquid explosives parked outside the consulate.
A suicide car-bomb attack outside the Sheraton killed 11 French naval engineers and three Pakistani bystanders in May 2002.