Pakistan’s Himalayan peaks are bucket list items for any serious mountaineer, but a massacre on the world’s ninth-tallest peak Sunday added yet another element of danger to what has long been a climbers’ paradise. On Monday, Pakistan suspended all mountaineering expeditions on Nanga Parbat after gunmen attacked and killed 10 foreign tourists at a hotel in the Diamir base camp early Sunday morning.
Police said the victims were three Ukrainians, two Slovaks, one Lithuanian, one Nepali and three Chinese, one of whom had dual citizenship with the U.S. The gunmen, who were disguised in the clothing of a local paramilitary police force that patrols the area, also killed a Pakistani guide, while one Chinese tourist escaped alive. A new wing of the Taliban, known as Junood ul-Hifsa, claimed responsibility for the attack and said it would target more foreigners “to convey a message to the world against drone strikes.”
Pakistani Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said visitor safety remained the government’s number one priority. “The purpose of this attack was to give a message to the world that Pakistan is unsafe for travel,” he said in a speech condemning the incident in the National Assembly Sunday. “The government will take all measures to ensure the safety of foreign tourists.”
As a matter of precaution Monday, it ordered all mountaineers off Nanga Parbat, the last peak over 8,000 meters (26,400 feet) in the western Himalayas. The summit is considered one of the biggest challenges in the mountaineering world.
Nanga Parbat is located in the typically peaceful region of Gilgit-Baltistan. The area is home to several mountaineering favorites -- including K2, the world’s second-highest mountain after Everest -- and is where the Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Himalayan ranges converge to dramatic effect. It has long been one of the highlights of Pakistan’s small tourism industry, and is a major foreign revenue earner for the nation, though Sunday’s incident threatens to soil its appeal.
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The International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation, which represents 80 member associations in 50 countries, condemned the attack at Nanga Parbat Monday. “This has hurt and shaken the mountaineering community profoundly. The mountains are a place of peace,” said UIAA president Frits Vrijlandt. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those affected, and we sincerely hope that this is an isolated incident which will not happen again.”
Though it has never regained the tourist appeal it had during the 1970s when the hippies came through on the Asia Overland Route, Gilgit-Baltistan had remained a bright spot amid declines nationwide over the past decade. It had also been considered free from the terrorist violence endemic to other parts of Pakistan.
The brazen attack Sunday was the first in the area to involve foreign tourists and put the nation in a difficult position for the remainder of the summer trekking season. Some 50 to 55 climbers currently at Nanga Parbat have been asked to leave, but it’s unclear what will happen next.
“[The murdered climbers] were our guests and what we did with them while they were sleeping in their tents is a matter of disgrace for us all,” lamented Aftabur Rehman Rana, president of the Sustainable Tourism Foundation of Pakistan. “This is not what Islam has taught us. … The killing of foreign climbers on the way to Nanga Parbat Diamer Base Camp will have far reaching negative impacts on the already lifeless tourism industry of Pakistan.”
Trekking companies have already registered cancellations from groups scheduled to climb later this season, according to Pakistan’s Express Tribune. If the trend continues, it could prove a massive blow to a multibillion-rupee industry that lures between 15,000 and 20,000 big-spending adventure tourists each summer.
“Forget tourism for another 10 years,” Additional Inspector General of Police Sarmad Saeed Khan stated Monday. “Hundreds of sectarian killings could not do the damage that the killing of 10 foreign tourists has done. Thousands of families will have to seek some alternate means of livelihood.”
Members of various organizations -- including Pakistan Associations of Tour Operators, Gilgit-Baltistan Volunteers Movement and the Youth Assembly of Gilgit-Baltistan -- staged a protest against the murders Monday that drew thousands to town of Chilas to urge the military authorities, civil administration and political leadership to take decisive action against terrorists. They demanded a special tourism force to provide safety and security to visitors, as well as government help to revive the battered industry.