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Pakistan recalls ambassador to Iran over airstrike by Tehran that killed 2 people

By MUNIR AHMED and JON GAMBRELL, MUNIR AHMED and JON GAMBRELL, Associated Press
Published: January 17, 2024, 7:46am

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan recalled its ambassador to Tehran on Wednesday, a day after Iran launched airstrikes on Pakistan that it claimed targeted bases for a militant Sunni separatist group. Islamabad angrily denounced the attack as a “blatant violation” of its airspace and said it killed two children.

Tuesday’s strike on Pakistan’s restive southwestern Baluchistan province imperiled diplomatic relations between the two neighbors, but both sides appeared wary of provoking the other. Iran and nuclear-armed Pakistan have long regarded each other with suspicion over militant attacks.

The attack also threatened to further ignite violence in a Middle East unsettled by Israel’s ongoing war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Iran launched strikes late Monday in Iraq and Syria over an Islamic State-claimed suicide bombing that killed over 90 people earlier this month.

Mumtaz Zahra Baloch, the spokesperson for Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry, announced that Islamabad is recalling the country’s ambassador to Iran over the strikes.

“Last night’s unprovoked and blatant breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty by Iran is a violation of international law and the purposes and principles of the charter of the United Nations,” she said in a televised address.

Baloch added that Pakistan asked the Iranian ambassador, who was visiting Tehran when the attack took place, not to return. Iran did not immediately acknowledge Pakistan’s decision.

Iranian state media reports, which were later withdrawn without explanation, said the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard targeted bases belonging to the militant group Jaish al-Adl, or the “Army of Justice.” The group, which seeks an independent Baluchistan and has spread across Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, acknowledged the assault in a statement shared online.

Six bomb-carrying drones and rockets struck homes that the militants claim housed children and wives of their fighters. Jaish al-Adl said the attack killed two children and wounded two women and a teenage girl.

Videos shared by the Baluch activist group HalVash, purportedly from the site, showed a burning building and two charred, small corpses.

A Pakistani intelligence report said the two children killed were a 6-year-old girl and an 11-month-old boy. Three women were injured, aged between 28 and 35. The report also said three or four drones were fired from the Iranian side, hitting a mosque and other buildings, including a house.

A senior Pakistani security official, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to reporters, said Iran had shared no information prior to the strike. He said Pakistan reserved the right to respond at a time and place of the country’s choosing and such a strike would be measured and in line with public expectations.

“The dangerous precedent set by Iran is destabilizing and has reciprocal implications,” the official said.

However, there were signs Pakistan was trying to contain any anger over the strike. The country’s typically outspoken and nationalistic media covered the attack Wednesday with unusual restraint. Pakistan is three weeks away from an election, and politicians are focused on campaigning and boosting voter momentum.

There is news coverage of the air strike and its fallout, but people are not on the streets protesting. The attack was in a remote part of Baluchistan, and no independently verified photographs or footage have emerged of its aftermath, making it harder for the air strike to feed the country’s voracious TV news cycle.

Iranian state media meanwhile continued not to address the strikes, instead discussing a joint naval drill held by Pakistan and the Iranian navy in the Persian Gulf on Tuesday. Pakistani officials acknowledged the drill but said it came earlier than Iran’s strikes.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian acknowledged Tehran carried out the attacks in Pakistan while speaking to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He defended the action while repeatedly being told by the interviewer that Pakistan had condemned the attack.

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“Regarding Pakistan, none of the nationals of our neighbor, brother and friend Pakistan were the target of Iran’s drones and missiles,” Amirabdollahian said. “We have discussed them with Pakistan’s high-ranking military, security and political officials. Our response is against Iranian terrorists inside Pakistani soil.”

Iran also said Revolutionary Guard forces killed a suspected Jaish al-Adl member in the city of Rask near the Pakistani border. Activists had described seeing drones and aircraft overhead at the site.

Pakistani defense analyst Syed Muhammad Ali said the government would weigh any potential retaliation carefully.

A military response is unlikely as the country’s air defense and missile systems are primarily deployed along the eastern border to respond to potential threats from India. Cash-strapped Pakistan also cannot afford a war with Iran.

But it might consider taking some measures to respond to such strikes from its western border with Afghanistan and Iran, Ali said.

Jaish al-Adl was founded in 2012, and Iranian officials believe it largely operates in Pakistan. The group has claimed bombings and kidnapped members of Iran’s border police in the past. In December, suspected Jaish al-Adl members killed 11 people and wounded eight others in a nighttime attack on a police station in southeastern Iran. Another recent attack killed another police officer in the area.

In 2019, Jaish al-Adl claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing targeting a bus that killed 27 members of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.

Iran has suspected that Sunni-majority Pakistan is hosting insurgents, possibly at the behest of its regional arch-rival Saudi Arabia. However, Iran and Saudi Arabia reached a Chinese-mediated détente last March, easing tensions. Pakistan, meanwhile, has blamed Iran in the past over militant attacks targeting its security forces.

Iran has fought in border areas against militants, but a missile-and-drone attack on Pakistan is unprecedented.

It remains unclear why Iran launched the attack now, particularly as its foreign minister had met Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister Anwar ul-haq Kakar the same day at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Kakar has yet to comment publicly on the attacks.

His predecessor, Shehbaz Sharif, said he was shocked at the breach of sovereignty. Writing on X, formerly known as Twitter, Sharif said “sincere dialogue and meaningful cooperation” between the two countries was needed.

After the Islamic State bombings this month, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry alleged the two bombers involved in the attack had traveled from Afghanistan into Iran through its southeastern border at the Jalg crossing — meaning they had traveled through Baluchistan.

Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, as well as Iran’s neighboring Sistan and Baluchestan province, have faced a low-level insurgency by Baluch nationalists for more than two decades. They initially wanted a share of provincial resources, but later initiated an insurgency for independence.

Iran’s attack on Pakistan came less than a day after Iranian strikes on northern Iraq that killed several civilians. Iraq recalled its ambassador from Tehran for consultations and summoned Iran’s chargé d’affaires in Baghdad on Tuesday in protest. Iran separately struck Syria as well.

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