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Pakistan: Simmering Baluchi Insurgency Complicates Regional Relations

By Ayesha Khan --> Pakistani soldiers guard the site of land-mine blast allegedly planted by a Baluchi nationalist in January (epa) For decades, Pakistan's Baluchistan Province has been the scene of sporadic clashes between government troops and guerrillas who are fighting for autonomy. Baluchistan borders Iran and Afghanistan, and is Pakistan's largest and most sparsely populated province. Many Baluch feel that their right to self-determination is being compromised and are unhappy with economic development plans that they claim are exploiting their resource-rich province, primarily to the benefit of Islamabad. But the insurgency has also influenced Pakistan's relations with neighboring countries -- with Islamabad accusing India, Afghanistan, and Iran of supporting Baluchi separatists.

PRAGUE, April 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Many Baluch are angry about deployments by the Pakistani army in their tribal lands. Journalist Ahmed Rashid thinks a dialogue with the Baluch people is necessary to make sure that their grievances are addressed.

"From the military regime side we are not seeing any kind of attempt to strike a dialogue or to at least start a dialogue," Rashid said. "What we are seeing is a much more concerted military action. The government insists that there is no military action -- that there is only paramilitary or a police action. But that is completely untrue. Journalists who have been there have seen bombing by the air force, have seen commandos in action, and have seen very, very heavy military deployments in action. The army is deeply involved in [fighting against] the insurgency."

"Clearly, the violence from the rebels is escalating. In recent interviews, some of the rebel leaders in the mountains are no longer talking about autonomy. But they are talking about separation from Pakistan -- an independent Baluchi state."

Unhappy With The Central Government

Imran Khan, a member of parliament in Pakistan, thinks the Baluchi insurgency is a direct response to Islamabad's policies.
He considers the government's distribution of revenues to be unfair. Baluchistan has only 5 percent of Pakistan's population but 44 percent of its land area.

"The center has treated Baluchistan like a colony," Khan said. "The resources of Baluchistan have been exploited and there has been no effort to develop the area. If only 5 percent of the revenues are going to go to Baluchistan, there is no chance of it ever developing. A proper development package [is needed] to ensure that the Baluch's genuine grievances [are addressed.] And this should have been done politically."

Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed refutes the claims of the Baluch nationalist movement. He maintains that Pakistan's army has been deployed in Baluchistan to make sure that development projects are unhindered. He says tribal factions are against such development.

"Sixty percent of the country's development is going to be [in that area]," he said. "Before this, the government was not taking much interest in their development. But now, when the government starts their work...they are creating hurdles. They are warlords and followers [of warlords]. They don't want education. They have thrown out the teachers. They are killing the contractors who are making their [roads] work and other things."

Claims Of Exploitation

Baluchi nationalist Humayun Baluch says the main complaint by the people of Baluchistan is the introduction of Punjabis -- the majority ethnic group in Pakistan -- as settlers, miners, and traders into their province.

"Baluch's provincial resources are being exploited and looted," Baluch said. "People's rights are being compromised and everything is being done for the benefit of the Punjabis. Army troops, army weaponry, helicopters, jets, and F-16s are being used in Baluchistan. The population is being forced out and is primarily living in Sindh [Province]. Houses have been burned and looted."

In fact, a large Baluchi population does reside in Sindh Province. Karachi -- the largest city in that province -- was in the news after a suicide bomb blast struck near the American consulate a day before U.S. President George W. Bush arrived in Pakistan last month.

Journalist Ahmed Rashid says that the insurgency is showing nuances of carrying over to other parts of Pakistan: "It has spread all over the province. It is in urban areas. It includes the educated Baluch and the middle-class Baluch as well as tribesmen. We've seen in recent bomb blasts and rocket attacks and people who have been arrested, [that these are] people from all classes of society. The danger, of course, is that there is a very large Baluch community in Sindh -- in Karachi. And certainly if there is going to be more pressure coming from the Baluch, we will see these acts of violence expand to other provinces."

The most recent wave of violence in Baluchistan began in 2004, when Islamabad started the construction of Gwadar port, which is being built by the Chinese. Many Baluch think that the revenue from the port will primarily benefit Islamabad. Parliamentarian Khan discusses the decades old controversy behind natural gas from the Sui company. Sui, which is located in Baluchistan, is the provider of gas for the entire country.

"Sui gas has provided billions of dollars worth of energy to Pakistan," he said. "It went to Baluchistan 30 years after the gas was exploited. And that, too, went first to the cantonment in Quetta." The cantonment area houses army officers and their families.

Violence To Worsen?

There has been talk of rising secessionist feelings in Baluchistan. Journalist Rashid says the rebellion has the potential of becoming even bigger than it currently is.

"Clearly, the violence from the rebels is escalating. In recent interviews, some of the rebel leaders in the mountains are no longer talking about autonomy. But they are talking about separation from Pakistan -- an independent Baluchi state."

Islamabad has repeatedly accused Afghanistan, Iran, and India of fueling the rebellion in Baluchistan. Parliamentarian Khan returns the blame to what he calls the "military government."

"By sending the military in, it has created the environment in which other people can operate. When you have generals ruling the country (ed. President Pervez Musharraf is an army general), they only know the military way. And it always increases the mess. It, in fact, increases the sense of alienation and deprivation."

With the government and the tribal bloc in opposing corners, and amid all the accusations, the concerns of the Baluchi people remain unanswered.