GILGIT (Dawn): Troops carried out a search operation on Monday, along with personnel of the Gilgit-Baltistan Scouts, Frontier Constabulary and police, in the area where 10 foreign mountaineers had been killed in an armed attack on Sunday and took into custody 37 suspects.
“The joint operation by the army, paramilitary troops and police will continue,” Diamer Deputy Commissioner Mohammad Ajmal Bhattee told Dawn.
He said evidence was being gathered to help trace the attackers. He said a case had been registered by Gunar Farm police and the suspects had been taken to Gilgit for interrogation.
The official said an investigation camp had been set up at the Nanga Parbat base camp at Diamori that had come under attack and all routes to the place had been sealed, but the administration was facing difficulty in maintaining communication with the operating forces in the area because of tough terrain.
The deputy commissioner said the government had held talks with leaders of local groups and they had promised to cooperate in the investigation.
A meeting held on Monday in Chilas in connection with the investigation was attended by the chief secretary and police chief of Gilgit-Baltistan.
The official said the luggage of the victims was being collected and brought to Chilas to be sent to Islamabad and handed over to their families.
Meanwhile, Gilgit-Baltistan Chief Minister Syed Mehdi Shah is reported to have been displeased by the decision of the federal interior minister to suspend the region’s chief secretary and inspector general of police.
According to an official, he ordered the suspended officials to continue to perform their duties and said their suspension was outside the domain of the federal government.
“If suspension of officials could establish peace then first of all the chief secretaries and IGs of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa should have been suspended,” he was quoted as saying.
He said the officials could not be suspended without his consent.
STRIKE: The Chilas town remained closed on Monday in mourning for the people killed in the base camp attack.
All markets remained closed and people took to the streets, raising slogans against the killers and demanding their early arrest.
At a largely attended public meeting the speakers termed the terrorist attack a conspiracy against their area.
AFP/ Reuters add: A police official said four helicopters were combing the areas in search of the attackers.
Expeditions on Nanga Parbat, the country’s second-highest peak, were suspended and climbers evacuated form the area.
It is a major blow to trekking expeditions which provide the last vestige of international tourism in the country. Naiknam Karim, general secretary of the Pakistan Association of Tour Operators, said the killings were a ‘disaster’ for Gilgit-Baltistan, where tourism was the main source of income.
He said he had already received a slew of cancellations by email and telephone.
Before the 9/11 attacks in the US, more than 20,000 foreign tourists, climbers and trekkers used to visit Gilgit-Baltistan each year, but the number had since fallen to around 5,000, he said.
He said an average non-trekking tourist spent about $3,000 in the area, but trekkers sunk $8,000-10,000 into the local economy.
“We used to be able to convince foreign tourists that there was peace in Gilgit-Baltistan but this incident has ruined everything,” he told AFP.
“It will also badly affect domestic tourism… The Pakistani government has to take steps to re-build the trust otherwise this last industry will be ruined,” he added.
The Alpine Club of Pakistan said around 40 remaining climbers on Nanga Parbat had been airlifted to Gilgit.
The club’s president Manzoor Hussain said there would be no further expeditions on Nanga Parbat this summer and the requests for winter climbs would be subject to a security review. “This season is over.”
He said expeditions on other peaks higher than 8,000 metres had not been suspended and there were troops in those areas.
Mr Hussain said the attack was well-planned, carried out by well-equipped and well-trained people familiar with the harsh terrain, with suspected local involvement.
“It took place at 4,200 metres. It has to be the work of well-trained people. It takes two to three days to reach (the camp). The body needs to adjust to the climate for climbing up. How they went undetected is a big question.”
Mr Hussain said citizens from Serbia, Italy, Ireland, Denmark, the United States and several other countries had been evacuated from a higher camp.
A group of Romanians is believed to be scaling the mountain from another side.
Mountaineers, many from China, Russia and Eastern Europe, are among the last foreigners who regularly visit Pakistan for leisure as tourism has been devastated since 2007 by militant attacks and fighting between the Taliban and the army.
Before the attack some 50 groups were expected this year in Gilgit-Baltistan.
“I haven’t slept since yesterday, it’s a very sad situation,” said Ghulam Mohammed, whose Skardu-based company Blue Sky Treks and Tours guided five of the climbers killed at the base camp. He was in Islamabad to speak to embassies and relatives of the victims.