ISLAMABAD (AFP) – Gunmen dressed as police killed nine foreign tourists in an unprecedented attack in the Pakistani Himalayas claimed by the Taliban, who said they had set up a new faction to target foreigners in revenge for US drone strikes.
The attackers struck late Saturday at the foot of one of the world’s highest mountains, killing climbers at a base camp in the far-flung north 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 on Sunday said two Chinese, on American, one Nepali, a number of Ukrainians and one Pakistani were among those killed while one Chinese national survived the attack, which comes just weeks after a new government took office.
The climbers were staying at a base camp for Nanga Parbat, which at 8,126 metres (26,660 feet) is the second highest mountain in Pakistan and the ninth highest in the world.
The base camp is at Fairy Meadows in the Diamer district of Gilgit-Baltistan, which borders China and Kashmir.
“The incident took place around 10:00 pm (Saturday, 1700 GMT). They were mountaineers,” Diamer police official Mohammed Naveed told AFP.
“Gunmen came and opened fire on them. It is confirmed that they have been killed,” he said.
The bodies of the foreigners were transported by helicopters to Gilgit airport from the area and later flown to capital Islamabad, officials said.
Pakistan interior minister Chaudhry Nisar told reporters that four had been identified.
“All the 10 dead bodies have been recovered and four of them have been identified. Two of them were Chinese and one was Nepali national, the third one was of Chinese origin, who’s nationality is American. The six (other) dead bodies are yet to be identified” he said, though he thought the rest were Ukrainians.
Matt Boland, acting spokesperson for the U.S. embassy in Islamabad confirmed to AFP that an American citizen had been killed in the attack and extended the embassy’s condolences to the families of the “innocent tourists”.
Nisar earlier said six Ukrainians and three Chinese were among the dead while Ukraine’s ambassador to Pakistan, Vladimir Lakomov, earlier told AFP that five Ukrainians were killed.
Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesman Yevgen Perebiynis said that according to Kiev’s latest information, 11 people were killed in the attack, including five Ukrainians.
The Himalayas in northern Pakistan are a magnet for experienced mountaineers, often from Europe.
Nisar said the attackers were dressed as Gilgit Scouts, a paramilitary police unit, and reached the area by abducting two guides.
“One guide was killed in the shootout. One is alive. He is now detained and being questioned,” he said.
Pakistan condemned the attack, but the killings will raise serious questions about security failures.
The interior minister conceded there was no security escort for foreigners in that area of the mountains.
The top bureaucrat and top police official in Gilgit-Baltistan were on Sunday suspended, state TV said.
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.
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.
A spokesman for Pakistan’s main umbrella Taliban faction, which is waging a seven-year domestic insurgency, initially refused to comment, but later telephoned AFP 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,” said spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan.
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.
Ehsan told AFP that Junood ul-Hifsa was a new wing set up by the Taliban “to attack foreigners and convey a message to the world against drone strikes”.
Pakistan’s Taliban organisation, a nebulous collection of factions, has been waging a domestic insurgency since July 2007 but is not previously known to have had a presence in Gilgit.
Rehman, who had a $5 million US bounty on his head, was accused by Washington of organising attacks against US and NATO forces in Afghanistan and wanted in connection with a suicide attack on an American base in Afghanistan in 2009 that killed seven CIA agents.
Pakistan’s government, which took office this month after historic elections, faces a massive array of problems related to a moribund economy and Islamist militancy.
Sharif has previously advocated peace talks with the Taliban and he criticised the US drone strike that killed Rehman, echoing long-held Pakistani complaints that the US campaign violates national sovereignty.