KARACHI -- A bomb blast rocked the Serena Hotel in Quetta in southwestern Pakistan on Wednesday night, killing five people and wounding 12. Chinese Ambassador Nong Rong was due to arrive for the night but the blast occurred minutes before he reached the hotel.
On Wednesday, the ambassador and Li Bijian, China's consul general for Sindh and Balochistan provinces, were on an official visit to Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province. During the visit, Nong met the governor and chief minister of the province and later donated 1,700 food packets to needy families in a food distribution ceremony.
The Chinese delegation was staying at the Serena Hotel, which is the only four-star hotel in Quetta, and Pakistani authorities had cleared the visit by the foreign dignitaries.
A white sedan packed with explosives exploded in the parking area at around 10:30 p.m. The blast killed five people, including a police officer and a hotel security guard. Two assistant commissioners from the regional government of Balochistan were among the dozen wounded.
Beijing has significant economic interests in Quetta, which is the capital of the province and also home to the port of Gwadar. Gwadar has been developed as part of the $50 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the flagship Pakistani component of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Sheikh Rashid, Pakistan's interior minister, confirmed to reporters that Nong was due to stay at the hotel, but was not there at the time of the blast.
Nong was named Beijing's ambassador to Islamabad last September. Unusually, he is a political appointee well versed in commerce and trade. Analysts consider his selection evidence of China's stepped up commercial and BRI activities in Pakistan.
Early this morning, the Chinese embassy in Islamabad told Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party newspaper, that all its staff were safe.
An outlawed militant group, Tehreek e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has claimed responsibility for the blast. Chinese citizens have come under attack many times in Balochistan, mainly at the hands of Baloch separatists.
TTP on Wednesday night said that Pakistani and foreign officials were the target. On Thursday, it revised the statement to omit "foreign officials," and said only Pakistani officials were the target.
An official who requested anonymity told Nikkei Asia that TTP is not ready to openly declare opening a front against Chinese interests in Pakistan, and that was the reason for the backtracking. The official also said that there is no doubt that the Chinese ambassador was the target.
"The growing threat of TTP will be a serious worry for China and its investments in Pakistan, especially in Gwadar Port," Przemyslaw Lesinski, an Afghanistan expert with War Studies Academy in Warsaw, told Nikkei.
TTP's "estimated force comprises between 6,000 and 6,500 fighters," he said, citing a U.N. report. "With the U.S. forces' ongoing withdrawal [from Afghanistan], the TTP, which has hideouts in Afghanistan along its eastern border, will probably operate even more freely."
In May 2017, a Chinese couple was kidnapped from Quetta by Islamic State terrorists and later killed in Mastung, a town in the same province. That incident brought an end to the free movement of Chinese in Quetta, and Chinese officials now only visit with heavy security contingents.
The TTP blast marks a renewed threat to Chinese interests in Balochistan. TTP militants are considered more precise and deadly than Baloch separatists operating in this area.