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Pakistan fires retaliatory strike at Iran over Baluchistan separatists

Pakistan fires retaliatory strike at Iran over Baluchistan separatists
Pakistan fires retaliatory strike at Iran over Baluchistan separatists

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ISLAMABAD — Pakistan launched a series of retaliatory strikes Thursday on militants in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province, its Foreign Ministry said, amid an increasingly tense situation in the Middle East that now appears to be straining relations between the nuclear-armed Pakistan and its neighbor.

Iranian state media reported that at least nine people, including three women and four children, were killed in the strikes, while Pakistani officials cited only the deaths of “a number of terrorists.”

The Pakistani attacks, carried out with “drones, rockets, loitering munitions and standoff weapons,” were launched in response to Iranian attacks inside Pakistan on Tuesday that killed two children, according to Pakistani officials. Both sides said they had targeted separatist militant groups that pose cross-border threats.

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Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-haq Kakar cut short his visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos, and Pakistani officials said their military — one of the largest in the region — remained on high alert.

While the Pakistan-Iran border region has seen occasional outbreaks of violence in recent years, this week’s attacks came amid growing concerns over rising instability in the region following the launch of Israel’s war with Hamas militants, who are supported by Iran. Over the past week, the United States carried out several rounds of strikes against Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen, who have been attacking shipping in the Red Sea; Iran, meanwhile, attacked targets in Iraq and Syria on Monday.

The strikes between Iran and Pakistan appeared somewhat unrelated in that they targeted militant groups that primarily pose local challenges and pursue limited regional goals.

Pakistan said its strikes targeted members of the separatist Balochistan Liberation Army and Balochistan Liberation Front, which view themselves as militant groups representing the Baluch community that lives across Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan.

Jaish al-Adl, the Sunni group that Iran said it targeted Tuesday, also views itself a Baluch separatist group. Pakistani officials dispute that the groups targeted by the Iranian and Pakistani strikes this week truly represent the Baluch communities.

Amid mounting volatility across the region, Tehran earlier this week “likely calculated this was an opportune moment to strike in Pakistan,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center.

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Iran’s strike on Pakistan was one in a string of recent Iranian attacks in the region, coming a day after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said it launched missiles at Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdistan region targeting what it called an “espionage headquarters” of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency. Iraqi and Kurdish officials denied the claims.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard also said it launched missiles in Syria, claiming to hit “the commanders and the main agents” behind two explosions earlier this month in the Iranian city of Kerman that killed at least 95 people and was claimed by the radical Islamic State group.

While strikes by Pakistan’s and Iran’s armed forces represent an escalation, Pakistani officials portrayed Thursday’s strikes in Iran as proportionate.

“It’s a measured, targeted response,” said Mushahid Hussain Sayed, the chairman of the Pakistani Senate Defense Committee, citing the lack of an Iranian apology for Tuesday’s strikes in Pakistan and “arrogant” and “offensive” comments from the Iranian foreign and defense ministries.

On Wednesday, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian defended the Iranian strikes, saying that they “only targeted Iranian terrorists on the soil of Pakistan” and no Pakistani citizens. “We don’t allow our national security to be compromised and to be played with and we have no reservations, no hesitations when it comes to our national interests.”

In justifying its retaliatory strikes on Thursday, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry used similar wording, saying it “fully respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” but that its “security and national interest” cannot be compromised.

Additional attacks would be “catastrophic,” Hina Rabbani Khar, a former Pakistani foreign minister, told The Washington Post.

Neither Iran nor Pakistan “can afford the escalation.”

Noack reported from Kabul, Vinall from Melbourne, Susannah George in Dubai contributed to this report.

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