Pakistan carries out strikes on suspected militant bases in Iran

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Pakistan carried out a pre-dawn attack on suspected militant bases in Iran on Thursday, a retaliatory strike that threatened to escalate tensions after Iran attacked a jihadi group in Pakistan this week.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry said it “undertook a series of highly co-ordinated and specifically targeted precision military strikes against terrorist hide-outs” in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province on Thursday morning, killing several militants.

Sistan-Baluchestan has long been a base for separatist groups fighting an insurgency against the Pakistani state.

The foreign ministry said it carried out the strikes because Iran had failed to act on “serious concerns about the safe havens and sanctuaries enjoyed by Pakistani origin terrorists” who had “continued to spill the blood of innocent Pakistanis with impunity”.

Iran confirmed that Pakistan had launched several missiles on an Iranian border village at 4.30am local time. Interior minister Ahmad Vahidi said nine foreign nationals, among them three women and four children, had been killed in the targeted village, which lies about 4km from the border.

Foreign ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani condemned the attack and said Pakistan’s chargé d’affaires in Tehran had been summoned.

Alireza Rahmati, a deputy to the governor of Sistan-Baluchestan, told state television that there had been “another explosion” near the border town of Saravan, but there were no casualties.

Thursday’s strike follows an attack by Iran on a Pakistan-based jihadi group on Tuesday, which targeted Koh-e-Sabz near the town of Panjgur in the neighbouring Pakistani province of Balochistan. The Jaish ul-Adl, a Sunni militant group, has waged an armed campaign against Tehran from Balochistan.

Pakistan recalled its ambassador from Iran following the strike and instructed Tehran’s envoy, who was overseas, not to return. Iranian media said Tehran on Thursday demanded an “immediate explanation” from Islamabad.

Pakistan’s acting prime minister, Anwar ul-Haq, also cut short a visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos this week.

The military escalation between Iran and Pakistan has prompted alarm that rising tensions across the region would threaten a broader conflict, after war broke out between Israel and Hamas in October.

Iran’s strikes this week followed similar operations by its elite Revolutionary Guards in Iraq and Syria in response to a suicide bombing in the southern city of Kerman, for which terror group Isis took responsibility.

Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen are also targeting merchant shipping in the Red Sea, while Iraqi militants linked to Tehran have launched attacks against US forces in Iraq and Syria.

Pakistan and Iran have long complained that separatists are able to use each other’s soil to launch cross-border attacks. But the attacks this week marked the first instance of Iran targeting a group inside Pakistani territory.

“The current tension between Iran and Pakistan is manageable and highly improbable to escalate into a significant matter, considering the close relations the two countries have fostered in recent years,” said an Iranian analyst.

But analysts said Pakistan’s powerful military saw it as vital to respond with force following Iran’s strikes, amid growing unrest along its western and northern borders. Pakistan has struggled with a surge in attacks by Baloch militants and the Pakistani Taliban, which Islamabad alleges enjoys haven in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s army said the strikes targeted “hide-outs used by terrorists responsible for recent attacks” using drones, rockets and loitering munitions.

Pakistan is also engaged in a decades-long stand-off with India — its biggest rival with whom it has fought multiple wars — in the east over the disputed territory of Kashmir.

“The message is to some extent for the Iranians, but the real message is for the Indians,” said Bilal Gilani, an analyst with Gallup Pakistan. “If these unilateral breaches of the international boundary continue it’s going to be deeply problematic for the long-term defence of the border.”

Gilani added that Pakistan, which is in the midst of an economic crisis, probably had limited appetite for further escalation. Islamabad “would definitely want it to end here, both from a defence perspective and a diplomacy perspective”, he said.

The prospect of unrest on the Pakistan-Iran border is particularly concerning for China, which has invested billions of dollars on the Pakistani side as part of its Belt and Road infrastructure project.

Speaking before Pakistan’s strike, Beijing on Wednesday urged Pakistan and Iran to “exercise restraint and avoid actions that would lead to an escalation of tension”.

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