Armed separatists stormed the Chinese Consulate in Pakistan's southern port city of Karachi on Friday, triggering an intense hour-long shootout during which two Pakistani civilians, two police officers and all three assailants were killed, including one who was wearing a suicide vest, Pakistani officials said.
The brazen assault, claimed by a militant group from the southwestern province of Baluchistan, reflected the separatists' attempt to strike at the heart of Pakistan's close ties with major ally China, which has invested heavily into road and transportation projects in the country, including in Baluchistan.
The Baluch Liberation Army said it was fighting "Chinese occupation" and released photos of the three attackers.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China would not waver in its latest big project in Pakistan — the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor — and expressed confidence that Pakistan could ensure safety. Still, China asked Pakistan to beef up security at the mission.
Authorities said the dead civilians were a father and a son who were picking up their visas for China. The consulate's diplomats and staff were unhurt and were evacuated to a safe place, senior police official Ameer Ahmad Sheikh said. A spokeswoman at the Jinnah Hospital said a consulate guard was wounded and was being treated there.
The attack began shortly after 9 a.m. when the consulate was open for business. The militants fired at consulate guards and hurled grenades, breaching the main gate and entering the building, said Mohammad Ashfaq, a local police chief.
Pakistani security forces quickly surrounded the area. Local TV stations broadcast images showing smoke rising from the building, which also serves as the residence of Chinese diplomats and other staff.
Multiple blasts were heard soon afterward but Sheikh could not say what they were. The shootout lasted for about an hour.
"Because of a quick response of the guards and police, the terrorists could not" reach the diplomats, Sheikh said after the fighting ended. "We have completed the operation."
He added that authorities would try to identify the assailants through fingerprints.
Geng, the Chinese spokesman, said the attackers did not get into the consulate itself, and that the exchange of fire took place outside the building. The discrepancy with the Pakistani officials' reports could not be immediately reconciled.
Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi spoke to his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi by phone and assured him that a "thorough investigation will be carried out to apprehend the perpetrators their financiers, planners and facilitators" linked to the attack on consulate, according to a foreign ministry statement. It quoted Yi as saying that the attack was an attempt to impact Pakistan China relations and to harm the two countries' economic pact.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan condemned the attack and praised the Karachi police and the paramilitary rangers for their courage. He ordered an investigation and vowed that such incidents would never be able to undermine relations with China, which are "mightier than the Himalayas and deeper than the Arabian Sea."
So far this year, the Baluch Liberation Army has claimed responsibility for 12 attacks against security personnel guarding projects linked to the Chinese Pakistan Economic Corridor and its infrastructure. In a letter dated Aug. 15, the group released a letter warning China against the "exploitation of Baluchistan's mineral wealth and occupation of Baluch territory." The letter was addressed to China's ambassador to Pakistan.
Amir Rana, executive director of the independent Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, said he didn't think Friday's attack would have much of an impact on Chinese projects in Pakistan, as both countries have calculated the security risks.
"These threats were already on Pakistan and China's threat radar," Rana said.
Still, the attack will compel China to step-up security in Pakistan and increase cooperation with local authorities, said Zhao Gancheng of the Shanghai Institute of Foreign Studies.
"As more and more Chinese people go abroad, and more and more Chinese investment goes overseas, the security situation of the destination countries has become a very important element for consideration," Zhao told The Associated Press.
The Baluchistan separatists have for years fought a low-level insurgency in Pakistan, demanding a greater share of the province's wealth and natural resources. Karachi, the capital of Sindh province, borders Baluchistan and is home to several militant groups, including the Baluch separatists.
In a rare statement about attacks in Pakistan, neighboring India condemned the assault on the Chinese Consulate, saying that "there can be no justification whatsoever for any act of terrorism."
New Delhi also said "perpetrators of this heinous attack should be brought to justice expeditiously."
Pakistan has long accused India of supporting Baluch separatists. The two countries have a history of bitter relations and have fought two of their three wars over the disputed region of Kashmir since gaining independence from Britain in 1947.
Elsewhere in Pakistan on Friday, a powerful bomb at an open-air food market in a province that borders Afghanistan killed 35 people and wounded dozens, said police official Tahir Ali.
Most of the victims in the attack in the town of Klaya in the Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province were minority Shiite Muslims. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing. Orakzai has been the scene of several militant attacks in recent years, mostly by Pakistani Sunni militants, who revile Shiites as apostates.
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed and Kathy Gannon in Islamabad, Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan; Christopher Bodeen in Beijing and Ashok Sharma in New Delhi contributed to this report.