The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs yesterday denied that any of the country’s citizens were being held hostage in an attack by Taliban militants on a Pakistani naval base, although it said Chinese technicians were moved to safety because of the assault.
The hostage issue is the latest episode of uncertainty in a Sino-Pakistani relationship that is close, sometimes secretive and also prey to confusion.
Beijing’s denial followed news reports that it had confirmed Chinese nationals were held by militants in the weekend siege.
Taliban gunmen assaulted the naval base in Karachi on Sunday, blowing up two aircraft and besieging a building in what the group said was an attack to avenge the death of Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader killed by US special forces.
Pakistani news reports at the time said Chinese nationals were taken hostage by the militants.
“The spokeswoman has already said: ‘It’s my understanding that no Chinese people were taken hostage,’” a staff member from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ spokesperson’s office said by telephone, citing what he said was a comment by spokeswoman Jiang Yu (姜瑜).
On Tuesday, Jiang told a press conference that Chinese companies’ “technical personnel were moved to safety” because of the attack, but she did not say whether those personnel were held hostage or were even on the navy base at the time of the attack.
A transcript of the press conference on the ministry’s Web site later inserted her direct denial that hostages were held.
On Monday, the ministry had also said “no Chinese nationals were taken hostage in the incident.” The Pakistani government has said the same.
China and Pakistan call each other “all-weather friends” and their ties have been underpinned by longstanding wariness of their common neighbor, India, and a desire to hedge against US influence.
China has been Pakistan’s biggest supplier of conventional arms, while Chinese engineers and technicians have helped build infrastructure in Pakistan, including nuclear power plants, but there are limits to how far Beijing is willing to back Islamabad and risk a rift with Pakistan’s long-time foe, India, and the US, which remains a key regional presence.
Beijing has voiced concern about Chinese nationals working in Pakistan, especially after several workers were killed in militant attacks in past years.
On Tuesday, China said it had not even heard of Pakistan’s proposal for Beijing to help it build a naval port, pouring cold water on an earlier announcement by Pakistani Defense Minister Ahmad Mukhtar.