A SCREEN grab, obtained from a social media video, shows people gather near rubble in the aftermath of Pakistan military’s strike on militant hideouts in an Iranian village near Saravan, Sistan-Baluchestan province, on Thursday.—Reuters
A SCREEN grab, obtained from a social media video, shows people gather near rubble in the aftermath of Pakistan military’s strike on militant hideouts in an Iranian village near Saravan, Sistan-Baluchestan province, on Thursday.—Reuters

• Nine killed in ‘precision strikes’ on ‘BLA, BLF camps’; security beefed up in border districts
• Tehran terms move ‘unacceptable’
• NSC to meet today as PM cuts short Davos visit
• China offers mediation, hopes for restraint from both sides
• Biden says strikes show Iran not ‘well-liked’

ISLAMABAD / QUETTA: Pakistan launched retaliatory strikes on Thursday against targets within Iranian territory, aiming at facilities linked to purported Pakistani Baloch separatist groups.

The tit-for-tat attack came within 48 hours after Tehran said it struck the bases of another group within Pakistani territory.

However, by the end of Thursday, officials from both countries engaged in conciliatory overtures, signalling a mutual interest in de-escalating and containing the heightened tensions.

Foreign Office spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch provided the initial official acknowledgement of the early Thursday morning operation, stating, “This morning, Pakistan’s armed forces executed meticulously planned and coordinated strikes against terrorist strongholds in Iran’s Sistan-o-Baluchistan province.”

The operation, dubbed ‘Marg Bar Sarmachar’, specifically aimed at the banned Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), resulted in nine casualties, all identified as Pakistani nationals.

In the Persian language, “marg bar” means “death to”, while “sarmachar” in the Baloch language means fighter or guerilla and is used by armed groups operating in the cross-border region.

Pakistan’s action was in retaliation to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) recent attacks on what Iran deems as Jaish al-Adl bases in Pakistan, a part of a broader pattern of Iranian strikes in Syria and Iraq, purportedly in response to militant attacks in the country in recent weeks.

Intelligence sources disclosed that Pakistani forces engaged at least seven militant sites in the vicinity of the Saravan region, situated around 80 kilometres from the Pakistan-Iran border. The weapon systems employed in these precision strikes included an array of advanced weaponry, such as killer drones, rockets, loitering munitions, and fighter jets.

Notably, the fighter jets deployed stand-off, extended-range munitions, enabling them to engage targets while remaining within Pakistani airspace. The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) detailed that the targeted locations were utilised by militants identified as Dosta alias Chairman, Bajjar alias Soghat, Sahil alias Shafaq, Asghar alias Basham, and Wazir alias Wazi, among others.

Ms Baloch emphasised that the strikes were a pre-emptive action against looming large-scale attacks, reportedly orchestrated by Pakistani militants harboured in Iran. She said Pakistan had substantial intelligence evidence to support the claim of attacks being planned.

Prior to resorting to military action, Islamabad had already reduced diplomatic ties with Tehran, signalling its disapproval by recalling its own ambassador and expelling the Iranian envoy from Pakistan.

The persistent issue of militant hideouts along the border has historically marred Pakistan-Iran relations, with occasional limited countermeasures by Tehran on Pakistani territory. Nonetheless, the recent surge in hostilities represented a significant and unparalleled escalation.

Ms Baloch expressed strong disapproval of Iran’s apparent indifference to Pakistan’s repeated warnings and intelligence sharing regarding the militants’ havens. “This operation is a testament to Pakistan’s unwavering dedication to safeguarding national security against all forms of threats,” she said.

Desire for de-escalation

Following the kinetic response, both the Foreign Office and the Pakistani Army expressed a desire for de-escalation.

Ms Baloch, during her weekly media briefing, emphasised that Pakistan was not interested in escalating tensions. “We believe in dialogue and cooperation as key tools for addressing common challenges, including terrorism. Our aim is to continue engaging with our neighbour to fight this threat and uphold peace,” she said.

The ISPR echoed this sentiment, advocating for dialogue and cooperation as prudent approaches to resolving issues between the two neighbouring countries.

Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, summoned the highest-ranking Pakistani diplomat in Tehran for an explanation of the attacks.

In a statement, the ministry condemned Pakistan’s “unbalanced and unacceptable drone attack on non-Iranian villagers”.

However, it said Iran “adheres to the policy of good neighbourliness and brotherhood between the two nations and the two governments of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Pakistan” and “does not allow enemies to strain the amicable and brotherly relations of Tehran and Islamabad”.

It said Iran considered the security of its people and its territorial integrity “as a red line” and expected “the friendly and brotherly government of Pakistan” to adhere to its obligations in preventing the alleged establishment of bases and the deployment of “armed terrorist groups” on its soil.

The ministry also emphasised that Iran “differentiates between Pakistan’s friendly and brotherly government and armed terrorists” and “does not allow its enemies and terrorist allies to strain these relations”.

In a post on X (formerly Twitter) after the statement, Seyed Rasoul Mousavi, director general of West Asia at Iran’s foreign ministry, hoped that the statement would mark an end to recent tensions.

Rahim Hayat Qureshi, Pakistan’s additional secretary for West Asia, replied, expressing a shared hope for resolving issues through positive dialogue.

China, US reaction

China has also stepped forward, offering to mediate between Iran and Pakistan.

“The Chinese side sincerely hopes that the two sides can exercise calm and restraint and avoid an escalation of tension,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told a regular press conference. “We are also willing to play a constructive role in de-escalating the situation if both sides so wish,” she said.

Ms Mao reiterated Iran and Pakistan were “friendly countries to China, and countries with important influence”.

US President Joe Biden said that air strikes by Pakistan and Iran on each other’s territory showed Tehran was not “well-liked” in an increasingly tense region.

“As you can see, Iran is not particularly well-liked in the region,” Biden told reporters at the White House on Thursday, adding that “we’re working on” understanding how the situation will develop.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Air Force One as Mr Biden flew to North Carolina that Washington is monitoring the Iran-Pakistan clashes closely.

“We don’t want to see an escalation clearly in South and Central Asia. And we’re in touch with our Pakistani counterparts,” Mr Kirby said.

He said the attack on Pakistan was another example of Iran’s destabilising behaviour in the region.

The US State Department also urged restraint on all sides, with spokesperson Matthew Miller saying Pakistan’s statements about the importance of cooperative relations with neighbours were productive and useful.

PM cuts short Davos visit

Meanwhile, following Pakistan’s tit-for-tat response to Iran’s missile attack, Prime Minister Anwarul Haq Kakar cut short his Davos, Switzerland, visit and called an emergency meeting of the Cabinet Committee on National Security today (Friday).

The meeting, to be presided over by the prime minister, will be attended by Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen Syed Asim Munir and members of the federal cabinet.

Prime Minister Kakar was in Devos on Thursday where he spent almost a week to attend the 54th session of the World Economic Forum. A source in the PM Office told Dawn the premier had planned to proceed to another country on a private visit from Davos.

Caretaker Information Minister Murtaza Solangi confirmed that Mr Kakar had convened the meeting of the Cabinet Committee on National Security. While reluctant to share the meeting’s agenda, Mr Solangi hinted that it would focus on the Pakistan-Iran situation.

Security beefed up in border districts

Meanwhile, Baloc­histan has ramped up its security measures after the country’s retaliatory strike into Iran.

A high-level meeting, led by Chief Minister Mir Ali Mardan Domki, was convened on Thursday to thoroughly assess the current law and order situation, particularly in the border regions, and to review arrangements for the upcoming general elections.

During the meeting, the additional chief secretary home and tribal affairs, Zahid Saleem, presented a comprehensive report on the law and order condition in districts bordering Iran and Afghanistan.

Chief Secretary Shakeel Qadir Khan, Additional IG Police Jawad Hussain and other relevant officials also attended.

Syed Irfan Raza in Islamabad and Anwar Iqbal in Washington also contributed to this report

Published in Dawn, January 19th, 2024

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