Nine foreign tourists and one Pakistani guide have been shot dead in the Himalayas of northern Pakistan, a region considered relatively insulated from the country's extremist violence.
According to the police, the attack took place in the middle of the night when armed men dressed up as local paramilitary police ambushed a base camp in the Gilgit-Baltistan region. The camp lies at the foot of Nanga Parbat, the world's ninth highest mountain, and is usually inhabited by mountaineers for climbing expeditions.
Although the identities of the tourists have yet to be verified, Pakistan’s interior ministry has confirmed that they hailed from China, Russia, and Ukraine.
In a country already struggling with its image abroad, many in the tourism industry fear that the latest attack on foreigners will discourage thousands of other international tourists who come every year to Pakistan to one of the only remaining safe regions in the country.
“Around 15,000 to 20,000 tourists including mountaineers came to Pakistan each year during the summer season. Each one of them spends over $5,000 to $6,000. The loss to Pakistan because of this attack will be in billions of rupees,” says Ghulam Nabi, a representative of Pakistan Tour Operators’ Association. “And it’s not just tourists that run away then, it also affects the foreign investor confidence."
Following the attack, this Monitor reporter received a call from an undisclosed location in which Ehsanullah Ehsan, the spokesperson for the banned terrorist group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), claimed responsibility for the attack.
“We will continue to target the foreigners until the drone strikes stop. This attack was particularly in revenge for the killing of our commander Wali-ur-Rehman. Our local Taliban faction in the area carried it out under our instructions,” Mr. Ehsan said.
Wali-ur-Rehman, who was killed last month in one of the first drone strikes after the new government in Pakistan came to power, served as the deputy commander of the TTP, operating out of the tribal region of Waziristan where the US has focused much of its drone activity. Following his killing, the Taliban withdrew an offer for peace talks with Nawaz Sharif, whose party was elected into power after the May 11 general elections.
The newly elected prime minister has openly condemned the drone attacks and has asked the United States to stop using drones. He is of the view that peace talks are one of the main options to tackle the issue of insurgency led by the Pakistani Taliban.
But analysts believe that the government’s insistence on peace talks has helped the Taliban gain strength and that is why there is an increase in their attacks once again. “When the government and especially the leadership calls for a dialogue with the Taliban, the security forces become relaxed thinking that their job is over – which actually gives the Taliban time to regroup and rebuild. We have seen this happen many times before,” says Khadim Hussain, a development specialist who has worked on counter-terrorism projects in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region where the Taliban are headquartered.
Mr. Hussain says that the solution to end terrorism in Pakistan can only be through a multifaceted policy which should include use of force, political strategy, and social changes.
“There is a strong ideological support in the general Pakistani population for these elements because of years of state indoctrination through education, media, mosques, etc. We need to use the same tools to create an alternative discourse for jihad and teach values that inculcate pluralistic and democratic principles,” he adds.