Gunmen dressed as police killed nine Chinese and Ukrainian tourists in an unprecedented attack in the Pakistani Himalayas claimed by the Taliban, who said it had set up a new faction to target foreigners in revenge for US drone strikes.
The attackers struck late on Saturday at the foot of one of the world’s highest mountains, killing climbers at a base camp in the far-flung north, which was not previously associated with violence or Islamist militancy.
The deaths call into question the future of foreign mountaineering and trekking expeditions, which provide the last vestige of international tourism in a country on the frontline of al-Qaeda and Taliban violence.
Officials yesterday said one Pakistani was also killed while one Chinese national survived the attack, which comes just weeks after a new government took office in Islamabad.
“The incident took place around 10pm. They were mountaineers,” Diamer District police official Mohammed Naveed said.
“Gunmen came and opened fire on them. It is confirmed that they have been killed,” he said.
Six Ukrainians and three Chinese were among the dead, Pakistani Minister of the Interior Chaudhry Nisar said. Ukrainian Ambassador to Pakistan Vladimir Lakomov earlier said that five Ukrainians had been killed.
Nisar said the attackers were dressed as Gilgit Scouts, a Pakistani paramilitary police unit.
“They abducted two guides and through them reached the area. One guide was killed in the shootout. One is alive. He is now detained and being questioned,” Nisar said.
Pakistan condemned the attack, but the killings will raise serious questions about security failures and embarrass a country already suffering from a dismal image abroad.
The top bureaucrat and top police official in Gilgit-Baltistan were yesterday suspended, state TV said.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif condemned “these inhuman and cruel acts,” ordered a thorough investigation and called for the culprits to be brought to justice, the government said.
Officials also spoke to the Chinese and Ukrainian ambassadors to express their condolences, the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs added.
“Those who have committed this heinous crime seem to be attempting to disrupt the growing relations of Pakistan with China and other friendly countries,” it said.
While Gilgit-Baltistan has seen deadly sectarian violence targeting Pakistan’s Shiite Muslim minority, foreigners have never previously been targeted in such a remote part of the region, which officials said was inaccessible by road.
A spokesman for Pakistan’s main umbrella Taliban faction initially refused to comment, but later telephoned to claim responsibility.
He said the attack was in response to the death of the group’s deputy chief in a US drone strike near the Afghan border.
“One of our factions, Junood ul-Hifsa, did it. It is to avenge the killing of Maulvi Wali ur-Rehman,” spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan said.
Rehman died on May 29 in a US drone attack on a house in North Waziristan, the most notorious Taliban and al-Qaeda stronghold in Pakistan on the Afghan border.