ISLAMABAD - Officials in Pakistan say counterterrorism forces have destroyed a major suspected Islamic State stronghold in the country’s southwest, killing 12 “hardcore terrorists.”
A military statement Sunday said the intelligence-led raid targeted the militant hideout in the hilly Mastung district in Baluchistan province and the ensuing gunfight that lasted for two days also injured five security forces, including two officers.
“Terrorists were hiding inside a cave for planning, coordination and execution of terrorist activities in Baluchistan.” It added that the successful operation foiled attempts to undertake terrorist activities in the province, particularly in its capital city of Quetta.
Mostly members of a banned Sunni militant organization, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi or LeJ, were occupying the base, a provincial government official told VOA. He requested anonymity because the military alone is authorized to publicly share details of such security operations.
Pakistani authorities believe LeJ operatives have aligned themselves with the Syrian-based terrorist group to help it establish a foothold in the country.
“It was one of the biggest operations in last many years in a single [Pakistani] district, killing hardcore mid-level and senior leadership of the terrorist outfit,” the official explained. He added that the militants were “somehow” related to all major terrorist attacks that have struck Baluchistan recently, he added.
IS has claimed responsibly for major suicide bombings in recent months that killed scores of people in the province and elsewhere in Pakistan. The latest such attack took place near Quetta last month when an IS suicide bomber killed 25 people and wounded dozens of others.
Local media said that the counterterrorism operation in Mastung was launched after intelligence reports suggested two Chinese nationals kidnapped from Quetta last week were being held in the area, though officials declined to comment on the reports.
The abductees, a man and a woman, were Chinese-language instructors based in the provincial capital.
Pakistan officials maintain that IS does not have an “organized presence” in the country, but acknowledge the group’s recruiters have been approaching people, particularly university and students through social media.
Baluchistan is at the center of a massive mega project of constructing road and rail links, as well as power plants, in Pakistan with Chinese financial assistance of more than $50 billion.
The largest Pakistani province is rich with minerals and other natural resources, but it is also allegedly host to a number of militant groups, including members of the Afghan Taliban. Additionally, ethnic Baluch separatists have also been waging a low-level insurgency in Baluchistan for decades.
Brahumdagh Bugit, one of the key insurgent leaders living in exile abroad, dismissed Sunday's official claims security forces targeted religious extremists in his native province. “Pakistan Army is attacking civilians in Mastung & Kalat with gunship helicopters for past several days. Celebrating [the holy Islamic month of] Ramadan by killing Baloch,” Bugti alleged in a statement posted on his Twitter account.