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Rediff.com  » News » Is Balochistan burning?

Is Balochistan burning?

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Last updated on: January 20, 2005 20:36 IST

The anti-Islamabad unrest in Balochistan continues unabated.

The unrest is due to anger over:

  • The suppression of the nationalist aspirations of the Balochs by the government in Islamabad;
  • the lack of economic development in the province despite the fact that its gas fields, which sustain the economy of Punjab, are a major source of revenue;
  • The continuing failure of the Pakistan government to give to the provincial administration and the tribes in whose territory gas was found an adequate payment of royalty for the gas supplied to the other provinces of Pakistan;
  • The non-association of the provincial authorities with the decision-making on the construction of the Gwadar port on the Mekran coast with Chinese assistance and the award of almost all contracts relating to the project to non-Balochs, mainly Punjabis;
  • The import of Punjabis and other non-Balochs, many of them ex-servicemen, into the province to work in the project;
  • The plans of the military-dominated administration in Islamabad to construct three new cantonments in the province in order to increase the number of troops permanently stationed there.
  • The continuing unrest, which is mainly directed against the army and the central government authorities and the gas production and supply infrastructure, was reflected in another attack by the Baloch nationalist elements on paramilitary personnel deployed in the province on December 25, coinciding with the 128th birth anniversary of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan.

Four men of the Frontier Corps were killed and as many injured in an ambush in the Buleda area of the Trubat district, about 650 kilometres west of Quetta, the provincial capital.

According to Frontier Corps officers, two of their vehicles carrying 14 personnel were attacked by unidentified persons with automatic weapons. They also fired several rockets. The officers said the attack was so fierce and sudden that the Frontier Corps patrol could not retaliate and the attackers were able to escape after the ambush.

Shortly after the ambush, a person who identified himself as Azad Baloch of the Baloch Liberation Army reportedly telephoned media offices in Quetta and claimed that the BLA had carried out the ambush in protest against the Pakistani army's plans to set up three more cantonments in the province.

6 die in Quetta blast

Warning that such attacks would continue if the army went ahead with its plans, he also claimed that 17 members of the Frontier Corps were killed in the ambush and not four as stated by an Frontier Corps spokesman.

Earlier, 11 people including an army soldier, were killed when a powerful bomb exploded at a crowded market place in Quetta. While claimimg responsibility for the incident, the BLA expressed regret for the death of the civilian passersby in the explosion, which according to it, was directed against the army.

Six persons, including five military personnel ,were killed in Khuzdar in August while three Chinese engineers were killed by an explosion in Gwadar in May.

On December 13, the police claimed to have foiled a major incident by defusing two rockets that were installed by the side of a road in Quetta.On December 18, a powerful bomb exploded in the Balochistan civil secretariat in the ministers' block, but it did not cause any casualties.

While the explosion, which killed the three Chinese engineers working in the Gwadar project, was believed to have been caused by anti-Beijing Uighur separatists based in the South Waziristan area, the responsibility for most of the other incidents, which had taken place in Balochistan since the beginning of this year, has been claimed by the BLA.

While not much is known about the leadership and infrastructure of the BLA, since 2001, sections of the Pakistani media have been carrying some details of the various groups of resistance fighters behind the growing unrest in Balochistan.

According to an account carried by Newsline, 'hundreds of Marri Baloch tribesmen, armed to the teeth, have taken up position on the Kohlu mountains, one of Pakistan's most backward, but oil and gas rich areas, to challenge the government's policies in Balochistan.'

'The tribesmen, who call themselves 'guerillas' waging a war for the rights of the Baloch population, are armed with Russian Kalashnikovs, heavy machine and anti-aircraft guns and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), picked up in Afghanistan during their 14 years in self-exile. Most of them are educated with military/guerilla training received in Afghanistan during the pre-1992 days of the then Afghan President Najibullah).'

It further said: 'The Marri guerillas are currently led by Nawabzada Balach Marri, the son of the ailing Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri. Balach, an electronic engineer from Moscow, won the provincial assembly seat from Kohlu with a record vote of over 18,000 -- the highest ever cast in the constituency -- despite all efforts by the administration to support his rival candidate, Mir Mohabat Khan Marri, the then provincial caretaker minister.

'After a sudden increase in the Marri tribes militant's actions in 2000, other militant groups also joined them to carry out joint actions across the province. Rocket attacks on Frontier Corps posts, landmine and dynamite explosions against Frontier Corps personnel were witnessed in the neighbouring Dera Bugti tribal agency. Similar attacks were also launched in Kalat, Dalbundeen, Khuzdar, Gwadar, and other areas by the militants in a show of strength.'

'In a recent army search operation in the mountainous Kachh area against the militants, regular as well as paramilitary troops, despite using aircraft and heavy cannons, failed to nab or kill any of the militants. However, two soldiers reportedly lost their lives, while many others were injured. A couple of months back, the government decided to take action against the militants and secure the mountains between Kohlu and Kahan that are still in the possession of the Marri militants.'

Tribal leader accuses Pak of using tanks, choppers

'An army of Levy forces and Bijrani tribesmen loyal to the government, backed by the Frontier Corps, battled with the militants for two days, in which one Bijrani tribesman and one levy personnel were killed, while no losses were inflicted on the militants. After gauging the capability of the militants and their political support from nationalist parties, the government has stopped its operation for the time being.'

'Locals in Kohlu claim that there are over 30 to 40 militant camps where Baloch youth have joined the militants to train in guerilla warfare. However, government agencies put the figure of the camps as little over 15.'

'The first-ever visit of a two-member journalist team from Quetta to some of these camps in the mountains revealed that each camp had 300 to 500 recruits. The camps were established in militarily strategic and protected areas, housed in abandoned buildings set up by the Pakistan army during the 1973 operation (against Baloch nationalists).

'The militants, equipped with modern communication gadgets, apart from physical training, spend their time discussing possible government military actions, reading newspapers and listening to the BBC every night to keep up with public and political reactions and government policies. They also visit areas under the influence of opponents and government forces to spread their message of an armed struggle against government policies.'

'Mir Balach Marri settled all enmities with the neighbouring Bugti tribe a couple of months back in accordance with the tribal customs and traditions. Now both tribes have formed a strong alliance against the government. Some 300 well-trained Marri tribes rushed to the aid of Nawab Akbar Bugti to fight paramilitary forces a couple of years back when the Bugti fort in Dera Bugti was under seige in the wake of increased attacks on gas pipelines. The government later withdrew their forces after an understanding was reached with the Bugti tribe.'

'The Tali (Sibi)-Kahan road is in complete control of the militants who have established dozens of check posts and camps, while hundreds of men are perched on the mountain tops all the way from Kahan to Tali. Not a single vehicle belonging to anyone hostile to their cause is allowed on the road.'

'The Kahan-Kohlu road used by Frontier Corps vehicles is a death trap of landmines. Despite regular mine-sweeping checks, incidents of mine explosions killing or maiming para-military personnel or members of opponent tribes are commonplace. In a recent action, the militants abducted two Frontier Corps personnel and one police constable and declared that they will not be released unless the government stops its operations and gives up its plans of constructing cantonments in the area.'

'The Marri tribesmen are also believed to be involved with other militant groups who are working underground in Balochistan. The government believes that the militants support the Baloch Liberation Army, an organisation responsible for the many bomb blasts and rocket attacks that have rocked the province and killed scores of military personnel.'

'However, leaders of militant tribesmen firmly deny any connection, but openly admit their sympathy for the BLA. With the exception of Dr Abdul Hai Baloch of the National Party, all Baloch nationalist leaders and student organisations openly support the guerilla warfare against paramilitary forces by regularly issuing statements in the press. According to government sources, the Marri militants are being financed by neighbouring Iran, some Gulf states and probably the United States who want to sabotage the Chinese involvement and influence in the building of the deep sea port in Gwadar.'

A correspondent of Ibrat, a Sindhi daily published from Hyderabad, Sindh, who claimed to have visited the training camps, reported as follows on August 1: 'During a recent visit to the training camps by journalists, it was disclosed that more than 60 training camps are operating in the area where Baloch youth are getting armed training. The estimated number of such persons is in thousands whereas hundreds of youth are joining these camps daily.'

'Dosteen Baloch is the commander of one of the training camps. He told the journalists: "Resources of Balochistan have been misappropriated and the entity of Balochs has been badly damaged. The time to resolve the problems through democratic means is already over. Now we have been compelled to take up arms. I am a graduate and married. Now our children ask when they can join the movement.'

'Another commander said he is a landlord who got an opportunity to exchange views with some young persons already present in the camps. Now I have decided to participate in the struggle in principle. He complained that Balochistan has been deprived of its national rights.'

'During the survey conducted by journalists, it was noted that Balochs were being trained with rocket launchers, RPG7, mortars, anti-aircraft guns, Kalashnikovs, land mines etc. They were possessing modern wireless sets, walkie-talkies, and satellites sets. They had modern communication sets. For transport, they had motorcycles, pick-ups etc.'

'Well placed sources maintained that the government has decided, for the moment, not to go ahead with its plan of a military operation in Balochistan, but instead buy some time by talking to local tribal leaders who they basically view with contempt.'

'It is generally believed that the present insurgency in Balochistan, which includes almost daily rocket attacks on the Quetta cantonment and other strategic installations besides gas pipelines, has been perpetrated by the still undefined Baloch Liberation Army.'

'The Baloch Liberation Army is an amorphous, underground organisation which was born in the Balochistan university many years ago during the cold war era. Extremists, left-leaning students of the Baloch Students Organization were its most important component.'

'To establish the BLA as a countervailing force in a region perceived to be the weakest link in the US chain, that is, Pakistan, the former USSR funded BLA with money and arms and logistics. After the Soviets were removed from power in Russia, nothing was heard about the BLA.'

'However, after the collapse of the Taliban in Afghanistan but with their presence near the Pak-Afghan border areas, sources said the US thought it prudent to establish its own spy network to counter-check the information made available to them by the ISI. The anti-Taliban nationalist elements, whether they are Pakhtuns or Balochs, were thought to be the best available resource that could be used to keep track of Taliban activities. In these circumstances, when Sardar Attaullah Khan Mengal returned from London to Pakistan after a long exile, it was not surprising for many suspicious people.'

'Sources in the Pakistan army went on to say that soon after the Sardar returned, the youth were reorganised under the banner of the Baloch Liberation Army. Kohlu was the place where a recruitment and training camp was established.'

'Sources in the Pakistan army maintained that about 200 people were armed and trained in Kohlu in which the Afghan and Indian government officials came deep into Pakistan and played a major role. These same sources said that apart from the 200 people, the main propelling force are tribal chiefs like Nawab Akbar Bugti, Sardar Attaullah Khan Mengal and Nawab Khair Bux Marri who are instigating their tribes to revolt against the Pakistan army. It is their perceptions, whether real or imaginary, which have created grounds in the military minds for an operation in Balochistan.'

'Sources say that such is the mindset that has developed that the army thinks it can wipe out the insurgents once and for all as the terrain in Balochistan is not tough like South Waziristan and tracking insurgents would not be a problem, but the army cannot afford to open up so many fronts at once. The Government has, for the present, abandoned its plans (for military operations) in the area and is pressurising the local tribal leaders to help in pacifying the situation.'

While neither confirming nor denying the existence of such camps, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, the chief of the Jamhoori Watan Party and a former governor of Balochistan, has stated that if such camps existed it was the result of state oppression, injustice and the prevailing sense of deprivation among the Baloch people.

He has blamed the military-dominated Islamabad government for forcing the Balochs into a situation where they felt that they had no other way of protecting their dignity, honour and rights except through resort to arms.

Musharraf, What about Baluchistan? 

According to him, apart from the BLA, two other organisations called the Baloch Liberation Front and the Baloch People's Liberation Army are spearheading the anti-Islamabad militancy in the province.

The government and sections of the media say that the Government has not yet launched a military operation and has been trying to pacify the people through political means such as the constitution of a joint parliamentary committee on Balochistan by Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz.

Baloch nationalists, however, including Nawab Bugti, say a military operation with the use of the air force, helicopter gunships and tanks, similar to the operation launched by the late Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s, is already on since August following an attack on some army personnel and an abortive attempt to kill provincial Chief Minister Jam Yousuf, who heads a coalition consisting of the anti-US religious fundamentalist parties and the Musharraf-created Pakistan Muslim League (Qaid-e-Azam).

Musharraf and his military-intelligence establishment, who are calling the shots in Balochistan, have imposed a virtual ban on the dissemination of correct information about the situation and have not been sharing with the public and the international community details of the casualties suffered by the army in its operations in the province.

Baloch police sources claim that the army and the paramilitary forces have already suffered over 100 fatal casualties, but they are not admitting them. These sources allege that in order to downplay the gravity of the anti-army revolt in the province, the army has been showing these casualties as suffered in the anti-Al Qaeda operations in South Waziristan and not in the undeclared operation against Baloch nationalists in Balochistan.

According to them, inflating the figures of casualties in South Waziristan, by including in them those suffered in Balochistan too, also serves the purpose of convincing the US of the claimed sincerity of the army's drive against Al aeda, at a tremendous sacrifice to the Pakistan army as claimed by Musharraf.

The Baloch nationalist movement is only one component of the deteriorating internal security situation in Balochistan. There are other factors too. Balochistan is Pakistan's largest province area-wise, but the most sparsely populated.

Even more than 50 years after Pakistan's independence, large parts of the territory remain unopened up, unadministered and undeveloped. It is almost like North Myanmar, with very little administrative or military presence in large parts of the territory in the remote areas.

Taking advantage of this, the Pashtun survivors of the Taliban and the Arab survivors of Al Qaeda have moved into the remote areas of the province and set up their own clandestine sanctuaries and training infrastructure.

Senior officials of the Hamid Karzai government in Kabul, including Karzai himself, have been alleging for over a year that Mulla Mohammad Omar, the Amir of the Taliban, and his associates in the Taliban leadership are operating from Balochistan.

Similarly, periodically, there are uncorroborated reports that Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, his number two in Al Qaeda, are now based in Balochistan and not in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where there is a strong US intelligence presence.

Baloch police sources say the survivors of the 600-strong force consisting of the Uzbek, Chechen and Uighur components of bin Laden's International Islamic Front, which was earlier operating from South Waziristan, have also moved over into the remote areas of Balochistan, and that these areas have become important clandestine operational bases for the training of Al Qaeda and pro-Al Qaeda elements and infiltrating them into Iraq via Iran for operating against the US troops there.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has set up its own training camps. Uzbek recruits are brought via Turkmenistan and Iran, trained at these camps and either sent back to Uzbekistan by the same route or infiltrated into Iraq via Iran.

Death awaits us in China

The Uighurs do not so far seem to have their own training camps. They are instead trained at IMU camps and some of them have also gone to Iraq.

Instead of acting against these Taliban, Al Qaeda and pro-Al Qaeda elements using the Baloch territory, Musharraf has been concentrating his campaign against the Baloch mationalists, who are strongly opposed to the presence and activities of Al Qaeda and pro-Al Qaeda elements on their territory.

The bad internal security situation in Balochistan poses a serious dilemma for Musharraf.

After seizing power on October 12, 1999, he had drawn up detailed plans for the diversification of the Pakistani economy in order to reduce the present dependence on the export of textiles, leather goods and sports articles and Karachi port.

His plans for Gwadar port, the construction of the Mekran Coastal Highway connecting Karachi and Balochistan, and the plans for the exploitation of the province's rich mineral resources are part of this economic diversification project.

In his perception, Gwadar would not only become the exit point for the external trade of the Central Asian Republics, Afghanistan and the Xinjiang province of China, but would also reduce the Pakistan navy's dependence on Karachi, which is within easy reach of the Indian Navy.

The implementation of this project demands a large flow of foreign investment and the cooperation of the Balochs. His deep distrust of the Baloch people, which he shares with other army officers, and his consequent dependence on imported non-Baloch labour, mainly Punjabi and Pashtun ex-servicemen, has made the Balochs oppose the project.

The internal security situation has kept foreign investors, other than the Chinese, away.

The Chinese have been actively associated with the construction of Gwadar port and the development of the Sanidak copper-gold mines, on which they have been given a long lease. The presence of a large number of Chinese engineers and other personnel in the province to work in these projects has attracted the Uighur terrorists into the province, who have targeted them.

The consequent security concerns of the Chinese have not slowed down their implementation of these projects, but have made them hesitant to undertake commitments for new projects as was seen during Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz's recent visit to China.

The need to strengthen the physical security of the Chinese and the imported non-Baloch labour in the province has led to an increase in the deployment of Pakistani troops in the area and the launching of plans for more cantonments. These have become an additional root cause of the growing anger of the Baloch nationalists against the army.

To deal with the situation, Musharraf has been trying to follow a carrot and stick policy. He has been claiming that his government has been spending more money for the economic development of Balochistan than any of the preceding governments and that the Balochs would be the ultimate beneficiaries of the ongoing projects with Chinese assistance.

He admits that the Balochs have legitimate grievances on the question of payment of royalty for the gas taken out of the province and has been promising since he took over in 1999 to have the issue re-examined without, however, any follow-up action so far.

At the same time, he has been expressing his determination to crush the militancy.

He visited the province in the December to review the security arrangements for the Chinese and the imported non-Baloch labour, to visit the site of the under-construction Mirani dam, and to inaugurate the Lyari-Gwadar section of the Mekran Coastal Highway.

During his public engagements in the province, he chose to highlight his dual role as the Chief of the Army Staff by wearing his uniform to give added weight to his warnings to the Baloch nationalists that they would be ruthlessly crushed if they did not call off their anti-government activities.

But the attempts for finding a political solution through a joint parliamentary committee have received a setback following the decision of the Balochistan National Party led by Sardar Akhtar Mengal to boycott it.

Next: Musharraf's hour of reckoning

Image: Uday Kuckian

B Raman
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