ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The assault on a military post in a remote southwestern district lasted several hours. Dozens of attackers, belonging to a Baloch separatist group, heavily armed with rocket launchers and sophisticated weaponry, outnumbered the Pakistani soldiers. A fierce firefight killed 10 Pakistani soldiers and an assailant, and the others managed to escape, officials said.
The ambush on Tuesday night was one of the deadliest against Pakistani soldiers in years and comes at a time of heightened unrest. The country’s security forces were already on high alert after a series of terror attacks this month – and officials said they are preparing for more attacks in the coming months as militant groups extend their reach and the scale of their attacks.
The Pakistani army officially confirmed the attack in Balochistan on Thursday night, a day after trying to downplay the incident and blocking local media from reporting on it. Military officials stressed they were still trying to get details of the attack, which happened in Kech, a remote mountainous district in southwestern Balochistan, a province rich in natural gas and minerals where a insurgency has been brewing for decades.
In a statement, the army said that three people had been arrested during a mine clearance operation, and that it was still looking for other assailants. “The armed forces are determined to eliminate terrorists from our soil, whatever the cost,” the army said.
On Friday, Prime Minister Imran Khan condemned the attack. “We are resolute in our commitment to rid Pakistan of all forms of terrorism,” Khan said. said on Twitter.
The rising violence reflects the formidable challenge Pakistan faces in curbing not only the Baloch insurgency, but also the resurgence of the Taliban in the northwest of the country. Officials say the Pakistani Taliban unilaterally canceled a ceasefire announced earlier in November, and attempts to pressure the Afghan Taliban to influence the Pakistani movement to give up arms have been unsuccessful.
The Balochistan Liberation Front, a separatist group, claimed responsibility shortly after Tuesday night’s attack and vowed it would continue attacks on the Pakistani army. He posted photos of his slain member and what he said was video footage of the assault; assailants moving slowly towards a military post, as explosions rang out and flashes of fire emanated from soldiers locked in a bunker. Later, the Pakistani military said the video was not authentic.
Pakistani security officials said there were at least 35 assailants, who carried out the ambush on the post in a coordinated manner from different directions. The military post – at Sibdan, a remote and arid place in Kech district – was mainly used for surveillance purposes.
The assault on the military post came shortly after a bomb blast rocked a bustling shopping district in the eastern city of Lahore, considered Pakistan’s cultural and political capital. On January 20, three people were killed while at least 25 others were injured in the blast, which officials say was caused by a timed device attached to a motorcycle. A newly formed Baloch separatist group claimed responsibility for the Lahore attack.
While the two attacks may be coincidental, the outbreak of violence comes amid warnings from Baloch separatists that Chinese investments are unsafe in Pakistan. Pakistan has been a showcase for China’s vast international development program, the Belt and Road Initiative, in recent years. China is estimated to have spent some $62 billion on these projects in Pakistan, mostly to build a transport corridor through Balochistan to a new Chinese-operated deep-water port in the Pakistani city of Gwadar.
Analysts said that while recent attacks have targeted security forces and others, the real target is elsewhere.
“CPEC remains the target,” said Saleem Qamar Butt, a retired senior military officer and defense analyst based in Islamabad, referring to the China-Pakistan economic corridor. “Hostile intelligence agencies have started pumping money to reinforce the Baloch proxies,” he said.
Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa met Mr Khan on Wednesday and his senior commanders a day later as the army considered retaliatory action amid growing calls for action against insurgents.
Security officials say they will step up their pursuit of insurgents, and intelligence-based operations against enablers in the area have already begun.
Pakistani officials have long argued that India is funding and supporting the Baloch insurgency, which India denies. The Baloch separatists also reportedly have bases in Iran, which neighbors Balochistan province.
“The BLF, for years, used Iranian soil to mount attacks in southwestern Balochistan,” said Ejaz Haider, a political and defense analyst. said on Twitter, referring to the Balochistan Liberation Front. “Why are we afraid of this discussion?” he added.
“Afghan and Iranian soils both serve as launching pads for terrorists,” said defense analyst Butt, adding that government dithering could further embolden separatist groups.
“We have to hit them in their bases, both at home and abroad,” he said.
Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud contributed reporting from Islamabad.