Pakistani Taliban claim killing of foreign tourists

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Pakistan's umbrella Taliban movement on Sunday claimed responsibility for killing nine foreign climbers in the Himalayas, saying it was carried out by a previously unknown faction.

Spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan telephoned AFP news agency to claim responsibility on behalf of "one of our factions, Junood ul-Hifa," to avenge the May killing of the Pakistani Taliban deputy leader in a U.S. drone strike.

The gunmen stormed into a base camp, killing Chinese and Ukrainian climbers in an area of the far-flung north not previously associated with violence or Islamist militancy.

The killings will jeopardize the only foreign tourism that remains in Pakistan -- that of mountaineers -- the few international tourists to still visit a country troubled by Al-Qaeda and Taliban violence.

Officials said five Ukrainians and a number of Chinese were killed. One Pakistani also died and one Chinese survivor has been recovered, the government said.

The climbers were staying at a first camp, around 4,200 feet, for Nanga Parbat, one of the highest mountains in the world, in the Diamer district of Gilgit-Baltistan.

"There were nine foreigners and one Pakistani. The incident took place around 10:00 pm (1700 GMT Saturday). They were mountaineers," Diamer police official Mohammed Naveed told AFP.

"Gunmen came and opened fire on them. It is confirmed that they have been killed," he said.

Five Ukrainians were among the dead, Ukraine's ambassador to Pakistan Vladimir Lakomov told AFP.

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar told parliament that one Chinese survivor had been rescued.

The Himalayas in northern Pakistan offer some of the most spectacular climbing in the world. Its peaks are a magnet for experienced mountaineers, often from Europe.

It was not immediately clear who was responsible.

While Gilgit-Baltistan has seen deadly sectarian violence targeting Pakistan's Shiite Muslim minority, foreigners have never before been targeted in such a remote part of the region, which officials said was inaccessible by road.

A spokesman for Pakistan's main umbrella Taliban faction, which is waging a seven-year domestic insurgency, refused to comment "for the time being" when contacted by AFP.

Helicopters were dispatched to recover the bodies, and that police and paramilitary had been ordered into the area, officials said.

Nisar told parliament that the attackers were dressed as Gilgit Scouts, a paramilitary police unit, and accessed the camp with the help of two guides whom they kidnapped.

"They abducted two guides and through them reached the area. One guide was killed in the shoot-out. One is alive. He is now detained and being questioned," he said.

Pakistan condemned the attack, but the killings raise serious questions about security failures and embarrass a country already suffering from a poor image.

The interior minister conceded there was no police or security escort for foreigners up in that area of the mountains.

The top bureaucrat and top police official in Gilgit-Baltistan were on Sunday suspended, state TV said.

"The prime minister of Pakistan has condemned these inhuman and cruel acts, ordered to conduct thorough investigation, and apprehend the culprits to bring them to justice," the government said.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif extended his sympathies to the bereaved families, saying that "the people and government of Pakistan stand by you in this hour of huge distress".

Officials also spoke to the Chinese and Ukrainian ambassadors on Sunday to express their condolences, the foreign ministry added.

"Those who have committed this heinous crime seem to be attempting to disrupt the growing relations of Pakistan with China and other friendly countries," it said.

The government, which took office earlier this month after historic elections, faces a massive array of problems related to a moribund economy and Islamist militancy.

In the past Sharif has advocated peace talks with the Taliban and he publicly criticized a US drone strike that killed Taliban deputy Waliur Rehman in late May, echoing long-held Pakistani complaints that the US campaign violates national sovereignty.

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