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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—At least nine Chinese construction workers and four Pakistanis were killed when an explosion blew a bus off the road in northern Pakistan, the deadliest incident for Chinese nationals in the country in recent years.

Officials from the two countries gave conflicting initial accounts of the cause of Wednesday’s blast, with Beijing calling it an attack and Islamabad saying it was the result of a mechanical failure.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman

Zhao Lijian

urged Pakistan to punish the perpetrators severely and protect the security of Chinese personnel, institutions and projects.

In a statement, Pakistan’s foreign ministry called it an accident, saying the bus plunged into a ravine after a natural-gas leak caused the blast. The ministry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the discrepancy between the accounts.

The security of thousands of Chinese workers in Pakistan is a highly sensitive issue. Chinese building sites, symbols and citizens have been attacked by local insurgents in Pakistan.

Islamabad and Beijing are close allies, with Beijing in the midst of a multi-billion-dollar construction program in Pakistan, a showcase for its global infrastructure initiative. The bus was taking workers to the Dasu dam, which is under construction in northern Pakistan, at the time of the blast Wednesday.

“If this is a one-off incident, it is unlikely to derail China’s plans in Pakistan, but there will almost certainly be heightened attention from Beijing on the security situation for the projects as a result of this,” said

Andrew Small,

author of a book on the China-Pakistan relationship. “The ability of the Pakistani security services to provide effective protection for the projects and personnel is still an essential precondition.”

Pakistan has raised a new dedicated division of its army—of more than 10,000 soldiers—to protect the Chinese. In addition, thousands of paramilitary and police personnel also guard the projects and personnel.

The incident came days before a major meeting of Chinese and Pakistani officials to discuss future projects, under what is known as the China Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Around a third of the $60 billion worth of promised infrastructure projects have been completed, but many of the remainder are in limbo mostly due to Pakistan’s lack of financial resources to pay for more. Instead, Pakistan is looking to entice the Chinese private sector to set up factories there. Businesses are often even more wary of security threats than the state-owned enterprises that carried out the infrastructure building.

Some Pakistani officials privately said the explosion was a bombing, with one official saying the bomb was planted on the bus. Local officials in the area of the blast also said that compressed natural gas wasn’t available there for vehicles to use as fuel. In the mountains, petroleum or diesel vehicles are generally used because they are better for the mountainous roads, local officials said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility. In the past the Chinese have been particularly targeted in Pakistan by separatist insurgents from the southwestern province of Balochistan, located at the other end of the country from the blast site. The separatists, a secular movement, claim that China is exploiting resources in their province.

Targets of Baloch separatist attacks have included a hotel in the Chinese-built port of Gwadar, the Chinese consulate in the southern city of Karachi, and the partly Chinese-owned stock exchange in Karachi.

Jihadist groups have also become more active in recent months, after Pakistani security operations had reduced attacks in more recent years. Islamabad says that the insurgents have refuge across the border in Afghanistan, a charge denied by Kabul.

In April, a bombing by a jihadist group narrowly missed the Chinese ambassador when he was visiting Balochistan.

China is Pakistan’s most important security and economic partner, providing everything from military technology to building nuclear-power plants in the country. Islamabad has also been a U.S. ally for decades, but that relationship has seen far greater ups and downs.

Raffaello Pantucci,

senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, located in Singapore, said that with the withdrawal of American troops from neighboring Afghanistan, Washington’s relationship with Pakistan will be downgraded.

“Pakistan needs international partners. It will be all the more important for them to keep China happy,” said Mr. Pantucci.

Earlier this month, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan heaped praise on China’s political system and the Chinese Communist Party as it celebrated its 100th year. He said that China had “achieved better without democracy.” He also said that he accepted Beijing’s denials of human-rights abuses of Muslims in its northwestern Xinjiang region.

Write to Saeed Shah at saeed.shah@wsj.com

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