By Gul Yousafzai
QUETTA, Pakistan (Reuters) – Gunmen stormed a luxury hotel in Pakistan’s southwestern port city of Gwadar on Saturday, killing at least one guard and battling security forces inside, officials and the army said.
Balochistan Home Minister Ziaullah Langove said most guests were evacuated from the five-star Pearl Continental Hotel, which helicopters circled as fighting was under way. Police said that in addition to the guard killed by the attackers, at least two other people were wounded but there was no final casualty total.
The military said at least three gunmen killed a guard at the entrance to the hotel when they entered. Security forces cordoned off the area and cornered the attackers in a staircase leading to the top floor, the military said in a statement.
The Balochistan Liberation Army, a group fighting for greater autonomy in Pakistan’s poorest province whose resources it says are exploited for outside interests, claimed responsibility in an emailed statement that said the attack was aimed at “Chinese and other foreign investors”.
A Twitter account apparently run by the insurgents said the attackers had “achieved all their targets” but there was no official confirmation that the fighting was over and officials said security forces were ensuring no surviving attackers remained concealed.
Prime Minister Imran Khan issued a statement condemning the attack. “Such attempts, especially in Balochistan are an effort to sabotage our economic projects and prosperity,” he said.
Gwadar is a strategic port on the Arabian Sea that is being developed as part of the $60 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is itself part of China’s Belt and Road infrastructure project.
The Pearl Continental Hotel, on a hillside near the port, is used by foreign guests, including Chinese project staff, but there were none in the building at the time of the attack, Langove said.
The Chinese embassy in Islamabad condemned the attack and said “the heroic action of Pakistani army and law enforcement agencies is highly appreciated”.
Pakistani officials have said the security forces were on alert for attacks during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which began in early May.
Security across most of Pakistan has improved over recent years following a major crackdown after the country’s worst attack, when some 150 people, most of them children, were killed in an assault on a school in the western city of Peshawar in 2014.
But Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province, remains an exception and there have been several attacks this year, with at least 14 people killed last month in an attack on buses traveling between the southern city of Karachi and Gwadar.
The province is rife with ethnic, sectarian and separatist insurgencies, with several militant groups, including the Pakistani Taliban group Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Balochistan Liberation Army and the Sunni group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
Saturday’s incident follows a bombing this week that targeted police outside a major Sufi shrine in Lahore, in the east of Pakistan, that killed at least 10 people and wounded more than 20, officials said.
(Reporting by Gul Yousafzai in Quetta, Pakistan; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Edmund Blair and Matthew Lewis)