Gunmen dressed as paramilitary forces killed nine foreign tourists in an unprecedented attack in the Himalayas of Gilgit-Baltistan, in a security failure bound to embarrass the new government just weeks after it took office.
The gunmen stormed into a base camp, killing Chinese and Ukrainian climbers in an area of the far-flung north not previously associated with violence or militancy.
The killings will jeopardise the only foreign tourism that remains in Pakistan – that of mountaineers – the few international tourists to still visit a country troubled by al Qaeda and Taliban violence.
Officials said five Ukrainians and a number of Chinese were killed. One Pakistani also died and one Chinese survivor has been recovered, the government said.
The climbers were staying at a first camp, around 4,200 feet from Nanga Parbat, one of the highest mountains in the world, in the Diamer district of Gilgit-Baltistan.
“The number of causalities is 10 and this has happened in Buner Nallah near the base camp,” Ali Sher, deputy inspector general police G-B told The Express Tribune on Sunday.
“The area where the incident occurred is unmanned and at a distance of two days track from Chilas,” said Alif Khan, a police official based in Chilas, headquarter of Diamer valley where the peak is located.
“There were nine foreigners and one Pakistani. Gunmen came and opened fire on them. It is confirmed that they have been killed,” Diamer police official Mohammed Naveed told AFP.
Five Ukrainians were among the dead, Ukraine’s ambassador to Pakistan Vladimir Lakomov told AFP.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar told parliament that one Chinese survivor had been rescued.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan have claimed responsibility for the killings.
The Himalayas in northern Pakistan offer some of the most spectacular climbing in the world. Its peaks are a magnet for experienced mountaineers, often from Europe.
While Gilgit-Baltistan has seen deadly sectarian violence targeting Shia community, foreigners have never before been targeted in such a remote part of the region, which officials said was inaccessible by road.
Helicopters were dispatched to recover the bodies, and that police and paramilitary had been ordered into the area, officials said.
Nisar told parliament that the attackers were dressed as Gilgit Scouts, a paramilitary police unit, and accessed the camp with the help of two guides whom they kidnapped.
“They abducted two guides and through them reached the area. One guide was killed in the shoot-out. One is alive. He is now detained and being questioned,” he said.
The government condemned the attack, but the killings raise serious questions about security failures and embarrass a country already suffering from a poor image.
The interior minister conceded there was no police or security escort for foreigners up in that area of the mountains.
The top bureaucrat and top police official in Gilgit-Baltistan were on Sunday suspended, state TV said.
“The prime minister of Pakistan has condemned these inhuman and cruel acts, ordered to conduct thorough investigation, and apprehend the culprits to bring them to justice,” the government said.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif extended his sympathies to the bereaved families, saying that “the people and government of Pakistan stand by you in this hour of huge distress”.
Officials also spoke to the Chinese and Ukrainian ambassadors on Sunday to express their condolences, the foreign ministry 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.
The government, which took office earlier this month after historic elections, faces a massive array of problems related to a moribund economy and militancy.
In the past Sharif has advocated peace talks with the Taliban and he publicly criticised a US drone strike that killed Taliban deputy Waliur Rehman in late May, echoing long-held Pakistani complaints that the US campaign violates national sovereignty.
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, it was erroneously mentioned that the attack took place in Fairy Meadows. The error is regretted.