A massive military and police operation is underway in the remote north of Pakistan to find and rescue dozens of climbers scaling the world’s ninth highest peak after militants stormed the mountain’s base camp and killed nine foreign tourists.
A local guide was also killed in one of the deadliest attacks on foreigners for a number of years and officials say the shootings will be a devastating blow to the nation’s already fragile tourist industry.
As soldiers and police hunt the gunmen, an equally pressing operation is continuing to locate up to 50 other climbers who may still be on Nanga Parbat and to take them to safety.
Around 15 gunmen wearing police uniforms launched the attack in the Diamir base camp of Nanga Parbat in the Gilgit district late on Saturday night. The dead climbers are said to be three Ukrainians, two Slovakians, two Chinese, one Lithuanian, one Nepalese and one Chinese-American. One Chinese climber survived the attack. The US embassy in Islamabad confirmed that a US national was among the dead.
As police attempted to seal off the area in a hunt for the attackers, a Taliban spokesman said the assault had been carried out by its Jundul Hafsa affiliate group in vengeance for US drone attacks. A recent drone attack had killed the Taliban’s deputy leader, Waliur Rehman.
“By killing foreigners, we wanted to give a message to the world to play their role in bringing an end to the drone attacks,” he told the Associated Press.
Pakistan’s once-thriving tourist industry has been devastated as a result of the violence that has rocked the country in recent years.
But tourists and climbers have continued to make their way to Gilgit-Baltistan, which borders China and Kashmir and is famed for its natural beauty and for being home to some of the world’s most celebrated mountains. It has been considered one of the safer areas of the country, even though it has more recently witnessed a series of attacks by militants targeting members of Pakistan’s Shia minority.
At 26,000ft, Nanga Parbat, first summited in 1953, is a notoriously challenging mountain. It understood at least six foreign and one Pakistani expedition were on Nanga Parbat when the attack happened.
Ghulam Mohammad, owner of Blue Sky Tours and Trek, told The Independent that he had been told five members of the ten-strong Ukraine International Nanga Parbat Expedition 2013 group that he had organsied were among the dead.
“They set off from Chilas on June 11 and they were planning to ascend the mountain,” said Mr Mohammed, whose climbing operation is based in the town of Skardu.
Raheel Adnan, who runs the Altitude blog and monitors climbing expeditions to Pakistan, said more than 50 climbers were on the mountain when the gunmen struck. He said a change in the weather may have meant there were fewer causalities than there might have been.
“There was bad weather last week but on Wednesday and Thursday it improved and people started climbing,” he said. “It meant that most of them were above the base camp when this happened.”
He added: “I know that a number of the teams are now coming back to Islamabad.”
Mr Adnan said in addition to the team from the Ukraine, there were expeditions from Poland, Romania, China and several mixed teams. Among the expedition members were Turkish, American, Russian and Italian climbers.
Sultan Khan, operations manager of Nazir Sabir Expeditions, which had organised the climb for the Seven Summit Treks Nanga Parbat Expedition 2013, made up of Chinese climbers, an American-Chinese climber and Nepali sherpas, said four members of the ten-strong team were among the dead. Efforts were continuing to reach the climbers who had been at other camps.
“I have been organising expeditions for more than two decades. This is the first time in our history [there has been such an incident],” he said. “We cannot believe such things. It’s beyond our imagination.”
A posting on the social media page of the 19-strong Polish-led International Nanga Parbat Expedition said that all but one of the team had been at camp II when the attack happened. They were still trying to make contact with the other climber.
Amin Mohammed, a spokesman for the Pakistani My Dream 8000er team, said its three members were safe as they had also been above base camp.
He said the team had decided to try and continue its ascent. “They have been trying to get to camp II for several weeks so they have decided to stay in place,” he said. “But if they receive instructions from the army they might have to cancel their plans.”
Turkish climber Tunc Findik was at camp II at the time of the attack and now is said to be making his way to base camp.
Mohammed Ali of Karakurum Magic Mountains, which had organised the climb of a five-strong team of Romanians, said he believed all were safe as they were ascending the Rupal face, on the other side of the mountain from the Diamir base camp.
Pakistan’s interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, confirmed the gunmen had dressed in the uniforms of Gilgit Scouts, a paramilitary police force that patrols the area. He said the attackers abducted two local guides to find their way to the remote camp and that one of the guides was subsequently killed. The other is being questioned.
“The government will take all measures to ensure the safety of foreign tourists,” he told the national parliament.
The attackers beat up the Pakistanis who were accompanying the tourists, took their money and tied them up. They checked the identities of the Pakistanis and shot one of them.
“Those who have committed this heinous crime seem to be attempting to disrupt the growing relations of Pakistan with China and other friendly countries.” Pakistan’s foreign ministry said a statement
Syed Mehdi Shah, the chief minister of Gilgit-Baltistan, condemned the attack and said it would seriously damage the region’s tourism industry.
“A lot of tourists come to this area in the summer, and our local people work to earn money from these people,” he said. “This will not only affect our area, but will adversely affect all of Pakistan.”