ISLAMABAD — Nine tourists preparing to climb a Himalayan peak in an idyllic region of Pakistan bordering China were murdered at their hotel overnight in the country's worst attack on foreigners in five years.
The tourists, who included five Ukranians, three Chinese and a Russian citizen, and their local guide, were shot by militants at the base camp of Nanga Parbat, a 26,600-feet-high mountain at the western end of the Himalayan mountains. The attackers were dressed in uniforms of the Gilgit Scouts, the paramilitary security force of Gilgit-Baltistan, a Pakistan-administered area of the Kashmir region disputed by Pakistan, India and China, whose borders meet there.
Gilgit-Baltistan is an idyllic region of snow-peaked mountains and glacial valleys located at the juncture of the Himalaya and Karakorum mountain ranges; it was the setting for the fabled Shangri-La of the book, "Lost Horizon," by James Hilton.
In reality, it was the setting for the 19th century strategic "great game" waged between Russia's Tsarist and British colonialist empires. Historically, Gilgit-Baltistan sits on the ancient Silk Routes and was the thoroughfare for the first Chinese pilgrims traveling from the 5th century A.D. to an early home of Buddhism at Varanasi, India, to collect religious texts for propagation in China.
Since then, it has been ruled by China, Tibet, Britain and the ruler of Kashmir, who chose to join India upon its independence in 1947. Instead, the Gilgit Scouts rebelled and the region's hereditary leaders opted to join Pakistan, newly formed from India's Muslim-majority northwest provinces.
The opening in 1978 of the Karakoram Highway, an 800-mile highway that's justifiably labeled the world's highest, connected Islamabad through Gilgit-Baltistan to the western Chinese city of Kashgar. It made the previously cut-off region accessible by road and it became a favorite fixture for adventurists and hippy-trailers, who flocked to the valley of Hunza, the setting for Shangri-La.
It is annually listed by National Geographic magazine as one of 50 places worldwide "to see before you die."
Pakistan's interior minister, Nisar Ali Khan, criticized Sunday Pakistan's intelligence agencies for failing to prevent the attack, and sacked the region's top police and security officials, as the country's parliament met in special session to pass a resolution condemning it.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is scheduled to visit China Monday, and while there plans to seal an agreement for the construction of a high-speed railway line through Gilgit-Baltistan to a Chinese port on Pakistan's Indian Ocean coast, near the mouth of the oil-rich Persian Gulf. The envisioned railway line would be a feat of engineering that would exceed China's construction of a railway into Tibet, which has similar terrain.
Tourists were the major source of income for the region's scattered population of 1.4 million until the September 11, 2001, Al Qaida attacks on the U.S., and had only started to return this year since May, when several groups of foreign mountaineers arrived to climb the region's peaks, which include 20 of the world's highest, some as tall as Mount McKinley and others significantly higher.
The overnight attack was the first ever on tourists in the region, known as a haven aware from the terrorist violence that plagues the Pakistani hinterland, although it does suffer from frequent, if small, outbursts of violence between Shia and Sunni Muslims living there. Unlike the rest of Pakistan, where Sunnis are in vast majority, the population of Gilgit-Baltistan is split equally between Shias, Ismaili followers of the Aga Khan, and Sunnis.
Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the self-described Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. However, militants based in the area told McClatchy the attack was planned by Alam Sher Afridi, a commander of the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, an Al Qaida-associated group that was responsible for a June 15 suicide attack on a bus-load of female students in the western city of Quetta. The militants spoke on condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
They said attackers also included members of two groups, Harakat-ul-Mujahideen and Jaish-i-Mohammed, Pakistani militants linked both with Al Qaida and the Pakistani military's security agencies, which uses them as interlocutors with insurgent militants. The two groups have secret training camps in Mansehra, which is connected by a high-altitude road from the south to the Nanga Parbat area, from where they send fighters to Afghanistan, the militants said.
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Amjad Hadayat contributed to this report from Besham, northern Pakistan.