Gunmen kill nine foreign tourists in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Gunmen killed nine foreign tourists in an unprecedented attack in Pakistan's normally peaceful Himalayan region, spotlighting violence just weeks after a new civilian government took office vowing to quell militancy.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif swiftly condemned the attack in an area of the far-flung north not previously associated with violence or Islamist militancy that plagues other parts of the country.

Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility, the attack threatens to jeopardise future foreign expeditions by mountaineers, among the few international tourists who still visit a country often seen as synonymous abroad with Al-Qaeda-linked militancy.

Police told AFP that the gunmen killed nine foreigners and a Pakistani overnight at a base camp 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 (1am Sunday Singapore time). They were mountaineers and based in a camp," Diamer police official Mohammed Naveed told AFP.

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

He could not immediately confirm their nationalities, although state-run television PTV quoted police as saying they included Chinese, Ukrainians and Russians.

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.

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

"A search operation has been launched. All the entry and exit points have been sealed," said Naveed.

Police gave no information about the attackers and there was no immediate claim.

While Gilgit-Baltistan has seen bloody sectarian attacks targeting Pakistan's Shiite Muslim minority, no previous violence has been reported in such a remote part of the region.

Officials said the area was inaccessible by road.

"The area is far flung and deep in the mountains. There is no connection by road and it is accessible only by mules, horses or on foot," Gilgit-Baltistan chief minister Syed Mehdi Shah told Geo TV.

"We have sent helicopters to the area. Police and paramilitary have surrounded the area. We have also taken help from the army," he said.

When asked about safety for tourists visiting the area, Shah said all visitors register with police, so their whereabouts are known.

A statement from the prime minister's office said 10 foreign tourists were killed in Ferry Meadows in Diamer, traditionally a base camp for Nanga Parbat.

"Such acts of cruelty and inhumanity would not be tolerated and every effort would be made to make Pakistan a safe place for tourists," it quoted Sharif as saying.

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

Sharif, who took office earlier this month after winning historic elections, faces a daunting array of problems ranging from a moribund economy to Taliban militancy.

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