Pakistan retaliates against Iran by attacking separatist “hideouts.”
Pakistan has launched retaliatory strikes against militants in Iran in response to attacks by Tehran that targeted sites within Pakistan’s borders, heightening fears of further instability across the Middle East and surrounding region.
A statement by Pakistan’s foreign office early on Thursday said it had undertaken “a series of highly coordinated and specifically targeted precision military strikes against terrorist hideouts” in the Sistan and Balochistan province of Iran, adding that “a number of terrorists were killed during the intelligence-based operation”.
The foreign office claimed the strikes were taken due to “credible intelligence of impending large-scale terrorist activities” by separatists being given a safe haven inside Iran’s borders.
ISPR, the media wing of Pakistan’s military intelligence, said the attacks had been carried out by drones, rockets and missiles, to target hideouts of the Baloch Liberation Army and the Baloch Republican Front, two separatist groups that Pakistan holds responsible for ongoing terrorist activity in the Pakistani province of Balochistan. “Maximum care was taken to avoid collateral damage,” said ISPR.
The military’s decision to respond to Iran with retaliatory strikes raised concerns of further escalation in the tension that has been spreading across the Middle East and neighbouring areas since the 7 October attacks by Iran’s ally Hamas and Israel’s subsequent bombardment of Gaza. The instability has also been furthered since the US and western allies began attacks on Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen, strikes which continued on Thursday.
According to locals who spoke to the Guardian, the drone strikes began at about 4.30am, hitting several residential houses in the village of Haq Abad, in Iran’s Sistan and Balochistan province, just 3km (1.9 miles) away from the Pakistani border.
“We could hear the drones hovering above and then they hit three different houses simultaneously,” said one resident. “The last drone hit at 7am and after it went quiet, people started coming out of their houses to pull the dead and injured out of the rubble.”
Pakistan’s foreign office attempted to play down the regional implications of the strikes, stating that that Pakistan “fully respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Islamic Republic of Iran” and that the attacks were in pursuit of Pakistan’s own security and national interest.
Pakistan had already condemned Tuesday’s attacks by Iran – against sites Tehran alleged were bases for Sunni militant group Jaish al-Adl – as an “illegal” violation of Pakistan’s airspace and had warned of “serious consequences”.
Pakistan also downgraded its diplomatic relations with Iran on Wednesday, recalling its ambassador from Tehran and expelling the Iranian envoy in Islamabad. Joint naval exercises between the two countries were also called off.
Tuesday’s missile and drone strikes by Iran on sites within Pakistan’s borders allegedly belonging to a Sunni separatist militant group were in response to a suicide bombing carried out by Isis-K, the Afghan branch of Islamic State, which killed 85 Iranians in the south-eastern city of Kerman on 3 January. Iran has also carried out recent strikes in Syria and Iraq.
The region of Balochistan, which has its own historical and cultural identity, is largely split between Pakistan and Iran, and has been home to a long-running militant insurgency, fighting for an independent state. It comprises the Pakistani province also called Balochistan, the Iranian province of Sistan and Balochistan, and certain areas of southern Afghanistan.
Iran and Pakistan have accused each other of harbouring separatist terrorists on their sides of the border, who have carried out dozens of deadly cross border attacks on soldiers, police officers and civilians.
In December 2023, 11 Iranian police officers were killed and several others injured when Jaish al-Adl militants attacked a police station in Iran’s Sistan and Balochistan province. Meanwhile, in 2023 10 Pakistan soldiers and security personnel were also killed three separate attacks in Balochistan carried out by militants reportedly operating from the Iranian side.
While in the past Iran has taken low-level action against Pakistan in response to militant attacks, Tuesday’s strikes were unusually heavy-handed and Thursday’s retaliatory bombings were the first time that Pakistan has responded with precise military action against its neighbour.
Sources in Islamabad said the decision was taken after heavy political and military pressure on the top army leadership to stand up against Tehran. Analysts said they believed the strikes by Pakistan were a one-off to demonstrate strength, and unlikely to escalate unless Iran retaliated again.
It was widely stated that Pakistan – which is going through an economic and political crisis as well as fighting a rising tide of terrorism – could not afford any more border conflicts, given its already fractious relationship with its other neighbours Afghanistan and India.
A security source said: “Pakistan retaliated to the Iranian aggression to restore deterrence.”
Iran said it was committed to good neighbourly relations with Pakistan, but called on the neighbouring state to prevent the establishment of “terrorist bases” on its soil, Iran’s foreign ministry said in a statement published on Thursday.