Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 27 May 2019

Imran Khan condemns Pakistani militant attack in Gwadar as economic sabotage

As security has improved across the rest of Pakistan, Balochistan has remained an exception

People look at the Pearl Continental on the hill after armed gunmen attacked the hotel in Gwadar, Pakistan, 11 May 2019. EPA
People look at the Pearl Continental on the hill after armed gunmen attacked the hotel in Gwadar, Pakistan, 11 May 2019. EPA

Pakistan's prime minister has condemned a separatist attack on a five-star hotel in Pakistan's strategic port city of Gwadar as an attempt at economic sabotage.

A four-man suicide squad stormed the Pearl Continental hotel on Saturday to strike against foreign and Chinese investors, according to a statement from an outlawed Baloch separatist movement claiming responsibility.

The assault on the centrepiece of China's Pakistan infrastructure building spree followed an attack on a Chinese consulate and will raise new questions about security for Beijing's multi-billion dollar investments.

Pakistani officials confirmed that a security guard died in the attack, but local media said the toll was at least three, with several more wounded. All the attackers were shot dead, after being cornered on an upper floor.

Other guests were either successfully evacuated from the hotel, or it was empty because of Ramadan, according to conflicting reports.

"Such attempts, especially in Balochistan, are an effort to sabotage our economic projects and prosperity. We shall not allow these agendas to succeed,” Prime Minister Imran Khan said in a statement.

Balochistan in southwest Pakistan is the country's poorest and least developed province, despite an abundance of potential mineral wealth. The region is home to a long-running separatist insurgency, as well as having been a haven for several Islamist militant groups.

Saturday's attack follows a string of strikes claimed by Baloch separatists who demand greater autonomy. The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), which said it was behind the attack, has hit Chinese targets before, blaming Pakistan's economic ally for aiding Islamabad and exploiting Baloch minerals.

The Chinese Embassy said it strongly condemned the attack and “the heroic action the of Pakistani army and law enforcement agencies is highly appreciated”.

The Chinese-funded expansion of Gwadar is the Pakistan centrepiece of Beijing's plan to build a Silk Road-style network of trade corridors across Asia. Gwadar will give Beijing a deep-sea port on the Arabian Sea, connected back to China by fast new road links. Pakistan hopes it will become “the next Dubai”.

Gwadar is historically a sleepy fishing town and until the 1950s was an overseas territory of Oman. Its potential as a deep-sea port was only begun to be tapped last decade and China was granted a 40 year lease to the port in 2017. Engineers are building berths for container ships along two miles of coast, as well as cargo terminals. Other projects include an international airport, expanded hospital, desalination plant and highways linking it to the rest of Pakistan. A liquefied gas terminal and oil refinery are also planned. By 2030 the port will be able to handle 400 million tons of cargo a year.

Chinese worries the project could be vulnerable to Pakistan's abundant militant groups led Islamabad to raise dedicated security forces to protect the programme. Gwadar has a heavy military presence and the Pearl Continental, which sits on a ridge overlooking the coast, is heavily secured. The hotel is used by Chinese businessmen and foreign tourists.

“This was an attack on a high-profile, highly secured target in a highly secured city. No small matter,” Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Programme at Washington DC's Wilson Centre think tank, wrote on Twitter.

The BLA was founded in 2000 as a nationalist militant group. It was fed by resentment over the government's monopoly over Baloch mineral wealth and allocation of jobs to Punjabis rather than locals, according to Stanford University's mapping militants project. As well as hitting military and government targets, they have also killed “settlers” from Punjab province in a campaign of target killings. Pakistan's army and spy agencies accuse India of stoking the unrest and have been blamed for waging a dirty war of extrajudicial killings, torture and disappearances to stamp out the insurgency.

The leasing of Gwadar to China was interpreted by the BLA and many Baloch as a new effort to colonise the province.

A BLA video released on Sunday purported to show the four attackers from the BLA's Majeed Brigade of suicide attackers.

“Baloch youth have time and again warned warned China to stop its exploitation of Baloch land,” said a gunman dressed in camouflage fatigues and wearing a bandana in BLA colours. “But China has failed to take notice of our genuine concerns. China is using Baloch land to further its evil designs and in doing so it is aiding Pakistan to brutally suppress Baloch civilians.”

Security across most of Pakistan has improved in recent years following a military crackdown after 148 people, most of them children, were killed in an assault on a school in the western city of Peshawar in 2014.

But Balochistan, Pakistan's largest province, remains an exception. The BLA in November said its suicide attackers were responsible for attacking the Chinese consulate in Karachi. The attackers unsuccessfully tried to break into the mission, killing two policemen and a father and son applying for travel documents in the process. At the time, Mr Khan blamed the attack on a conspiracy against Pakistan's close cooperation with China.

An alliance of three other banned Baloch separatist groups claimed responsibility for the killing of at least 14 bus passengers travelling from Gwadar to Karachi last month. Gunmen boarded the bus and checked identity cards, selecting passengers working for Pakistan's armed forces among others. Their captives were taken off and shot.

Updated: May 12, 2019 06:18 PM

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