Pakistan: Gunmen target luxury hotel in China-funded port city

Gunmen stormed a five-star hotel in the southwestern Pakistani port city of Gwadar on Saturday, prompting an hourslong shootout with security forces in which one hotel guard and the attackers were killed.

"Four armed militants stormed the Pearl Continental in Gwadar and attacked security guards at the entrance," Baluchistan provincial minister Ziaullah Langu told DW. He added that no foreigners were present in the hotel at the time.

Local police chief Aslam Bangulzai told Pakistan's Dawn newspaper the assault happened shortly before 5:00 p.m. local time (1200 UTC).

Officials said the hotel guard was killed as the assailants opened fire with small arms.

Pakistan's military then launched a security operation and a gun battle ensued that lasted almost five hours, the military said in a statement, adding that security forces surrounded the militants on the stairs leading to the top floor.

Two security officials later told the Associated Press (AP) that the four attackers had been killed and that troops had retaken control of the area.

Prime Minister Imran Khan condemned the attack in a statement on Saturday. "Such attempts, especially in Balochistan are an effort to sabotage our economic projects and prosperity," he said.

Read more: Belt and Road Forum: Is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor failing?

Baloch separatists claim attack

Within hours of the assault unfolding, the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), a militant separatist group, claimed responsibility.

A Twitter account apparently run by the insurgents said the attackers had "achieved all their targets."

"Our fighters have carried out this attack on Chinese and other foreign investors who were staying in PC hotel," wrote Jihand Baloch, a BLA spokesperson, in an email to Pakistani journalists.

Read more: Gwadar – Pakistan's impoverished colony or an economic hub?

Security officer Mohammad Aslam told the AFP news agency that there were no Chinese or Pakistani guests in the hotel and that only staff were present in the building. The luxury hotel is reportedly popular with foreign business travelers.

Baluchistan conflict

Baluchistan remains Pakistan's poorest and least populous province despite a number of development projects Islamabad initiated there in the past. Rebel groups have waged a separatist insurgency in the province for decades, complaining that the central government in Islamabad and the richer Punjab province exploit their resources. Islamabad reacted to the insurgency by launching a military operation in the province in 2004.

Rights groups claim they have the details of thousands of Baloch people who have disappeared over the past ten years and have not been seen since. Pakistani security agencies claim these people were arrested on terrorism charges. However, the whereabouts of these people are kept secret from the public; they have not been presented to local courts for a proper trial, Baloch activists claim.

Read more: Baloch activists in Germany chant pro-India, anti-Pakistan slogans

The region has experienced a recent spike in violence. Three weeks ago, gunmen targeting naval and security forces killed 14 people after forcing them off buses.

On Friday, at least five people were killed by BLA militants in a coal mine in Balochistan's Harnai district.

Key economic zone

Gwadar port was constructed by China as part of the Belt and Road Initiative and is an important hub in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Beijing aims to expand its influence in Pakistan and across Central and South Asia.

Baloch separatists — both militant and political groups — oppose China's increasing involvement in the province. In March 2018, Aslam Baloch, a BLA commander, told Indian media that Pakistan and China are exploiting Baluchistan's resources.

Read more: China's economic corridor creating new conflicts in Pakistan

Lijian Zhao, deputy chief of mission at the Chinese embassy in Islamabad, told DW in an audio message: "We condemn the attack in the Pearl Continental hotel in Gwadar; we appreciate the Pakistani law enforcement agencies for their bravery. We are happy that Pakistan's army and police have already eliminated the four terrorists. We also express our sincere condolences to the security guard who was killed in this incident."

In November 2018, the BLA claimed responsibility for an attack on a Chinese consulate in Karachi. The attack highlighted the opposition to China's economic projects in Baluchistan province.

Read more: China consulate attack: Why Pakistan's Baloch separatists are against Beijing

In a 2015 interview with DW, Brahamdagh Bugti, leader of the Baloch Republican Party living in exile in Switzerland, said that Chinese economic projects in Baluchistan were aimed at "colonizing" the province, and must be resisted.

shs,mm,wmr/ng (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

Haroon Janjua contributed to this report from Islamabad.

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