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Pakistan uses army to protect projects with Chinese workers after Dasu bus blast

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A screen-grab image from security cameras of the Honda City that was supposedly used in the suicide attack in Dasu, Pakistan on July 14. Photo: Handout

Two weeks after a bus blast in northern Pakistan killed 12 people, including nine Chinese nationals, Pakistani security authorities are hunting for two people and the silver Toyota Corolla car they were driving.

The pair are thought to have coordinated with a suicide bomber who rammed an explosives-laden silver Honda City car into one of two buses on its way to dam worksites near the remote town of Dasu on July 14.

The buses, each carrying more than 30 people, were being escorted by two vehicles belonging to paramilitary forces and were heading to the World Bank-funded Dasu hydropower project being constructed by China Gezhouba Group Corp (CGGC).

Counterterrorism police in the eastern city of Lahore on Wednesday said they had detained two brothers from Pakistan’s western Balochistan province in connection with the Dasu attack. This came as counterterrorism authorities and the Pakistan military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency were questioning another two men in Dasu, a small but busy town in the mountainous region of Kohistan.

The ISI is leading Islamabad’s efforts in a joint investigation with Chinese authorities, and is coordinating the country’s provincial police forces.

But interviews with about nine officials and influential members of the community in Dasu, who asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons or because they were not authorised to speak to media, did not indicate any connection between the detentions in Lahore and the silver Toyota Corolla the authorities are looking for.

The two people detained in Dasu included a local resident employed by China Gezhouba who has since been released after questioning. The second person, an Afghan national who had been seen begging in Dasu days before the attack, is still in custody.

Screengrabs of security camera footage from banks and commercial premises around Dasu showed that the cars had been seen around the town three days before the attack.

Pakistani investigators have also circulated images of the two vehicles – driven by a man dressed in a white shirt – to community activists, hoteliers, bank managers and other members of the public.

Sources said the driver of the Honda City reconnoitred various worksites of the Dasu hydropower project early on the morning of July 14, before parking near the gate of the Barseen camp, which houses the project’s workers.

At the time, between 100 and 200 Chinese personnel, including dam engineers, were assembled in the camp’s car park, awaiting their turn to board several buses used to transport them to and from the project’s various worksites.

After the blast, police were able to recover a significant part of the Honda City’s engine, a source from the force said. But its original engine number had been removed with a metal grinding machine and a false number was stamped on, making it hard for authorities to match it with car registration records.

‘It was their kismet not to die’

Two Dasu-based community activists, Hafeez-ur-Rehman and Abdul Jabbar, narrated the accounts of two people injured in the attacks to This Week in Asia.

One was a Pakistani translator working for CGGC, the main contractor for the US$1.1 billion Dasu hydropower project which has been under the development of Pakistan’s Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda) since 2012. He was on the bus that was rammed by the Honda City and is currently hospitalised in Islamabad.

The other was a local resident travelling on a passenger bus adjacent to it. His eardrum burst from the force of the shock wave created by the car-bomb explosion, which lifted the bus into the air, turning it 90 degrees. He was also struck by debris which badly injured one of his legs. Community activists are negotiating with district administration officials to secure financial aid for his treatment.

The passenger bus the local resident was on came to rest with part of its chassis hanging over the edge of the Karakoram Highway – a 1,300km national highway that starts in Pakistan and crosses into China – narrowly escaping an approximately 60-metre drop down a sheer rock face into the River Indus.

According to the local resident, while the suicide bomber rammed the Honda City into the first bus in the CGGC convoy, killing one person, it was the bus travelling immediately behind it that bore the full brunt of the explosion. Eleven people on the second bus, which was carrying mostly Chinese nationals, died.

The second bus was sent flying off the road and tumbled down a very steep slope, landing on a random sliver of boulder-strewn shoreline along the Indus River, which is currently recording its highest annual water levels.

A further 29 people, predominantly Chinese nationals, were injured, many of them seriously.

But the death toll could have been a lot higher had the bus caught fire – as is often the case in frequent accidents along the Kohistan region stretch of the Karakoram Highway, which was built between 1966 and 1978 by Chinese and Pakistan Army engineers.

Worse, it could have ended up in the Indus River, which is being fed by glacial meltwater from the adjacent mountain ranges and monsoon rainstorms. In that event, the bus and its passengers would have been swept downstream, only becoming recoverable from the reservoir lake of Tarbela Dam, some 300km south of Dasu.

“The other Chinese nationals only survived because it was their kismet not to die,” Jabbar said. “It’s a miracle.”

Tightened security

China and Pakistan’s foreign ministers in a meeting last Sunday agreed to strengthen security to better protect Chinese workers and investments, after what Beijing described as the biggest terror attack against its citizens overseas.

On July 26, as This Week in Asia’s correspondents travelled in and around Dasu, there were few manned checkpoints and no questions asked of non-locals. However, things changed a day later.

Pakistan’s state institutions visibly swung into action, with small convoys of lorries and SUVs carrying units of army soldiers commanded by young officers wearing dark sunglasses arriving in Dasu at regular intervals.

By Wednesday, uniformed soldiers sporting the arm patches worn by specialist mountain warriors were in the Komila bazaar area of Dasu.

These soldiers are frontline veterans of the war between Pakistan’s military and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) insurgents between 2007 and 2015, fought mostly in terrain similar to that of the Kohistan region. One army platoon was immediately deployed to a mountaintop, giving them a clear line of sight over the vast Dasu hydropower project worksite.

Senior district administration and police officials described a broad array of actions being undertaken to build security infrastructure in Kohistan and the adjacent districts of Gilgit-Baltistan connected by the Karakoram Highway to Pakistan’s border with Xinjiang at the Khunjerab Pass.

District administrators received orders to register the occupants of Islamic schools so they could be checked for connections with the TTP and other jihadist groups, and amass a record of cars that had been smuggled into the area from Afghanistan.

Security is also being tightened at the Diamer-Bhasha Dam worksite, 70km upstream from Dasu. It is being built and financed by China Power and is surrounded by natural terrain, making it exposed to attacks.

District administration and police sources said Islamabad was open to relying on soldiers to secure the hydropower project worksites, and was even considering deploying an army infantry brigade of between 1,800 and 2,700 soldiers. The government has also instructed telecommunications providers to ramp up the installation of signal towers, as patchy network coverage in Kohistan and Gilgit-Baltistan have undermined the communications capacity of the district administration, police, army and intelligence agencies.

But local officials pointed out it would take months for the army to be fully involved as they would first need to survey the area before establishing a garrisoned area to house a brigade headquarters, followed by a network of military camps and posts in terrain usually only traversed by flocks of mountain goats and their shepherds.

For the time being, some troops will be assigned to man a series of army checkpoints along the Karakoram Highway, in addition to existing ones operated by the police and army-commanded paramilitary forces.

Officials said the activities in Dasu in the past week were only the first steps to bringing projects involving Chinese personnel into the four-layered security net provided for developments that fell directly under the multibillion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a key part of Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative to boost global trade and infrastructure.

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The wreck of the bus that plunged into the valley after the July 14 suicide attack. Photo: Xinhua

‘Not in Kohistan?’

While there have been previous attacks on Chinese assets in Pakistan by separatist groups and the Pakistani Taliban, the government did not think these would happen in the Kohistan region, interviews with officials suggest.

This is partly because of the insular character of Kohistan culture. The resident tribesmen are deeply conservative, armed and notorious for waging blood feuds with each other, but they set aside enmities and form councils known as jirga to act collectively when dealing with outsiders – be they the Pakistani authorities or foreign contractors and consultants.

Their representatives have pressed hard for generous compensation for land acquired for the Dasu hydropower project, and for the lion’s share of the jobs to be earmarked for Pakistani nationals.

While the negotiating process has been difficult and prolonged, involving sit-ins on the Karakoram Highway and the roughing up of Chinese managers on several occasions, it has not escalated, according to those interviewed.

One reason is that the local tribesmen are materially motivated. Another is that they have avoided taking any actions that would prompt the government and military to establish a major presence in their area – one of the reasons the TTP was unable to expand its insurgency from the neighbouring Swat Valley, home of Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yousafzai, in 2007-08.

The TTP attempted to shoot its way into Kohistan, but was repelled by a force of tribesmen comprising men capable of shooting a gun, which held the high ground and forced the militants to retreat in humiliation.

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The scene of the bus blast near Dasu in Pakistan on July 14. Photo: Xinhua

A senior administrator said the current investigation into the Dasu bus blast would likely proceed along several lines – some leading to dismantled jihadist infrastructure in areas adjacent to Kohistan, others focused on tracing the terrorist chain of command in eastern Afghanistan, where the TTP and the regional affiliate of Islamic State are based.

The TTP’s spokesman Mohammed Khurasani has outright denied involvement in the Dasu attack.

An official said the task of tracing the two alleged perpetrators in the Toyota Corolla seemed nearly impossible given the absence of a claim of responsibility, and the attempt to conceal the identification of the Honda City used in the suicide attack.

“It’s already apparent that the mastermind of the attack adopted tactics used by the TTP and Daesh [Islamic State] so as to cover their tracks,” he said.