Islamabad: In an unprecedented attack on foreigners, Taliban militants wearing paramilitary uniforms stormed a mountaineering base camp in northern Pakistan, killing nine foreign tourists and two Pakistanis, embarrassing the PML-N government just weeks after it assumed office and offered peace talks with the insurgents.
About 14 to 16 militants targeted the camp at Buner Valley in Gilgit-Baltistan that serves as a base for mountaineers headed for the 8,126-metre Nanga Parbat, the world`s ninth highest peak.
The attack occurred late Saturday night but authorities were alerted only this morning, officials said.
Confusion surrounded the number and nationality of those killed in the attack in Gilgit-Baltistan, a disputed territory between Pakistan and India.
Officials said nine foreigners and one Pakistani were killed but later revised the toll to 11, including two Pakistanis.
Speaking to reporters at a military airbase after the bodies of the victims were flown to Rawalpindi, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said only four of the dead had been identified so far.
They included one American national of Chinese origin, one Nepalese and two Chinese nationals.
Officials said the other foreigners could not be identified as the attackers had taken away their documents.
Earlier, the Interior Minister said in parliament that three Chinese nationals, one Russian, five Ukrainians and one Pakistani were among the dead.
Another Chinese tourist was recovered safely, he said.
"The attackers were wearing the uniform of the Gilgit Scouts. They abducted two (Pakistani) guides and demanded they take them to where the foreigners were staying. One guide was killed and the other is alive. He has been detained by police for questioning," Khan said.
The Gilgit Scouts is a paramilitary unit that is part of the Army’s Northern Light Infantry regiment.
The outlawed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was carried out to avenge the death of the group`s deputy Chief, Waliur Rehman, in a US drone strike on May 29.
Taliban spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan called journalists and said the attack was carried out by a new faction named Junood-e-Hafsa. "This will tell the international community about our feelings and sentiments against the killing of our fighters. We want to convey to the world that this is our reply to US drone attacks," Ihsan said.
He said Junood-e-Hafsa was set up to attack foreigners.
The Taliban has been engaged in a domestic insurgency since 2007 but it was not known to have a presence in Gilgit-Baltistan, which was once considered secure.
"Those who have committed this heinous crime seem to be attempting to disrupt the growing relations of Pakistan with China and other friendly countries," said a statement issued by the Pakistan Foreign Office.
China`s Foreign Ministry condemned the attack and said the Chinese embassy in Pakistan has maintained close contact with Pakistani authorities on the issue.
The embassy has asked Pakistan to make all-out efforts to take care of the survivors, apprehend the gunmen as soon as possible and take measures to guarantee the safety and legitimate rights of Chinese citizens in Pakistan.
After the attack, the Chief Secretary and police chief of Gilgit-Baltistan, earlier known as the Northern Areas, were suspended on the orders of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
A special police team headed by DIG Ali Sher was set up to probe the attack. Sher told reporters in Gilgit that the armed men barged into a hotel and killed the tourists.
Police and security forces had cordoned off the area and launched a hunt for the killers.
Gilgit-Baltistan Chief Minister Syed Mehdi Shah said authorities had sought help from the army, which provided a helicopter for aerial surveillance. The remoteness of the area and lack of roads and communication facilities had hampered the response by authorities, he said.
About 14 to 16 attackers, wearing uniforms of the Gilgit Scouts, barged into the hotel at 10.30 pm last night. After tying up 25 Pakistani staff, the attackers killed the foreign tourists. The attackers were in the base camp for almost 90 minutes and left the area at midnight.
The paramilitary Frontier Corps was alerted about the incident only at 6 am. Authorities launched efforts to secure other foreign mountaineers and tourists present in the area.
Despite several sectarian attacks that left dozens of Shias dead in the nearby Chilas and Diamer areas last year, there are no security forces or check posts on the sole road leading to the base camp in Diamer.
The attack was the first of its kind in Gilgit-Baltistan and raised serious questions about the safety of scores of tourists, many of them foreigners, who visit the region.
Initial reports said the incident had occurred in the tourist resort of Fairy Meadows near Nanga Parbat`s northeast face, but officials later clarified the attackers targeted a base camp in Diamer.
Military helicopters flew the bodies from the remote region to Gilgit, from where they were transported to Rawalpindi in a C-130 transport aircraft.
Prime Minister Sharif strongly condemned the killing of the foreigners and said, "such acts of cruelty and inhumanity would not be tolerated and every effort would be made to make Pakistan a safe place for tourists".
In a separate message, President Asif Ali Zardari said "such acts of barbarity would not be tolerated" and urged authorities to take stern action against the perpetrators.
The National Assembly or lower house of Parliament adopted a unanimous resolution condemning the attack in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf leader Shah Mahmood Qureshi moved the resolution after relaxation of rules by the House.
Members of the treasury and opposition benches condemned the killing of the foreigners and urged authorities to adopt stringent measures to prevent such incidents that threaten to jeopardize mountaineering expeditions.
Interior Minister Khan said the bodies of the foreign tourists will be sent to their countries with dignity.
Senior ministers will accompany the bodies to the different countries and Pakistan will make arrangements for relatives of the dead to come to the country, he said.
Khan said the motive behind the killing of foreign tourists at the base camp for Nanga Prabat was to "tarnish the image of Pakistan internationally".
Gilgit-Baltistan, which borders China, was considered one of the more secure areas under Pakistani control but in recent years it has witnessed a spate of militant attacks targeting the minority Shia community.
Dozens of Shias have died in these attacks.