Suicide bomber kills 5 Chinese workers in Pakistan

Suicide bomber kills 5 Chinese workers in Pakistan

String of attacks has challenged ties between China, Pakistan

Dasu Dam is currently under construction on the Indus River near Dasu in Kohistan district, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan. (Google Maps)
Dasu Dam is currently under construction on the Indus River near Dasu in Kohistan district, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan. (Google Maps)

ISLAMABAD — Five Chinese workers were killed Tuesday when a suicide bomber rammed a vehicle into their convoy in northern Pakistan, the latest in a string of terrorist attacks highlighting the security challenges Pakistan faces in protecting Chinese personnel.

The Chinese labourers were working on the Dasu dam, a hydropower project on the Indus River in the northwestern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The convoy was moving to Dasu from Islamabad and came under attack around 1pm, officials said.

Over the past week, terrorist attacks also struck a Pakistani military air base and a strategic port in the southwest of the country, where China has invested billions in infrastructure projects. The string of attacks has challenged the close economic and strategic ties between the two countries.

China is estimated to have spent some US$62 billion on projects in Pakistan, mostly to build a transportation corridor through Baluchistan to a new Chinese-operated deep-water port in the Pakistani town of Gwadar.

It was the second-deadliest attack on Chinese labourers working on the dam project, after a previous suicide attack on a convoy in 2021 killed nine Chinese workers. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack Tuesday. The driver of the vehicle was also killed.

"This latest attack on Chinese nationals in Pakistan heightens growing fears in Beijing about the bleak future of its tens of billions in investments in the country," said Kamran Bokhari, a senior director of Eurasian security and prosperity at the New Lines Institute in Washington, the United States.

"China has had a front-row seat in witnessing Pakistan’s social, political, economic and security meltdown," he said. "What is happening in Pakistan, along with the situation in post-US Afghanistan, represents a serious threat to Chinese interests in the broader South and Central Asian regions."

The attacks over the past week were part of the surging violence from militant and terrorist groups in Pakistan, which have grown more active and violent since US troops withdrew from neighbouring Afghanistan in 2021 and the Taliban seized power.

Much of the violence has been carried out by the Pakistani Taliban, an ideological ally and twin of the Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as the Baluchistan Liberation Army, a militant separatist organization that operates primarily in Baluchistan province.

Baluch separatists have targeted Chinese workers in recent years, claiming that they are pillaging natural resources like gold and access to the sea that should exclusively belong to the people of Baluchistan.

The Pakistani Taliban has close ties to a militant group known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which seeks independence for Uyghur Muslims in China. As part of that relationship, the Pakistani Taliban has carried out attacks on Chinese interests in Pakistan in response to Beijing’s treatment of Uyghurs.

A United Nations (UN) monitoring report in January noted concerns about the East Turkestan Islamic Movement more closely collaborating with the Pakistani Taliban in recent months "in recruitment, training, planning attacks and posing a regional threat."

The recent uptick in militant violence in Pakistan has added to the political and economic crises the country has faced over the past two years. It has also spurred growing tension in neighbouring Afghanistan with its Taliban leaders, whom Pakistani officials have accused of offering safe haven to the militants carrying out the attacks in Pakistan. Taliban officials have denied those claims.

Tensions between the two countries have come to a head in recent months. In September, Pakistani officials announced a new policy aimed at deporting the roughly 1.7 million Afghans living in the country illegally. Earlier this month, Pakistan also bombed Pakistani Taliban targets inside Afghanistan for the first time in nearly two years.

"The surge in violence is linked to Pakistan's deteriorating ties with the Taliban,” said Abdul Basit, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. "The new wave of violence also points to improving operational capabilities of both jihadists and Baloch separatist groups to hit hard targets in coordinated attacks. Both groups are employing suicide bombers, which underscores steady recruitment into their ranks."

The attack Tuesday took place along the Karakoram Highway, which links Islamabad, the capital, with the mountainous northern region of Gilgit-Baltistan and China, following one of the ancient Silk Road’s many routes.

The Chinese nationals were travelling along the highway in a security convoy when a vehicle laden with explosives rammed into it, according to Bilal Faizi, the spokesperson for emergency rescue services in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.

One day earlier, Baluch separatists attacked a Pakistani naval base, PNS Siddique, in the Turbat district of Baluchistan province. The Pakistan military said that four heavily armed attackers had been unable to breach security and were killed at the outer boundary of the base. Two Pakistani soldiers were killed in the firefight. The Baluchistan Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the attack.

On March 20, two Pakistani soldiers were killed when Baluch separatists attacked Pakistani military intelligence offices in Gwadar, the southwestern city where Pakistan is developing a port with the help of China. Eight heavily armed gunmen tried to enter the Gwadar Port Authority and were killed after a firefight that lasted several hours, officials said.

In response to Tuesday’s attack, Pakistani officials vowed to investigate the incident and bring those behind the attacks to justice.

After visiting the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad on Tuesday, Syed Mohsin Raza Naqvi, the minister for interior and narcotic control, said that the government would "deal with the elements involved in the attack with iron hands."

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif also visited the embassy and expressed condolences, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. The ministry condemned the attack and urged Pakistan to “thoroughly investigate the incident as soon as possible, hunt down the perpetrators and bring them to justice."

It added: "Any attempt to undermine China-Pakistan cooperation will never succeed.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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