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Pakistan: Tight Security, Public Backlash Dampen Militant Protests

  • Charles Recknagel

Shortly after the U.S. strikes in Afghanistan began on 7 October, violent protests rocked several Pakistani cities. Some of the deadliest were around the southwestern city of Quetta, where four people died in rioting. But now, more than a month into the U.S.-led campaign, the violent protests in Quetta have subsided and show few signs of reviving. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports from Quetta.

Quetta, Pakistan; 9 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A little over a month ago, street protests against the start of the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan quickly turned into rioting in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan.

The protesters, called out by militant Islamic groups the day after the air strikes began, surged through downtown streets shouting "Death to America" and proclaiming their support for the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.

The protest became a riot as some in the crowd attacked businesses and a bank. Security forces shot one man dead and wounded several others before the rioting subsided. Much the same scene was repeated outside Quetta in the nearby town of Pishin, where three more rioters were killed.

Since then, there have been other protests in the Quetta area, including a rally by thousands of militants just ahead of the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to Pakistan on 15 October. But that protest -- like others that followed -- have seen none of the rioting that marked the first protest, and each time the crowds have generally dispersed peacefully.

In Quetta, many people say the early violent protests against the air strikes have subsided into mostly peaceful demonstrations for two reasons. One reason is a dramatically stepped-up security presence, which today sees armed soldiers and armored jeeps stationed at key points around the city. The armored jeeps are equipped specifically for riot control, with multiple tear-gas launchers to drive crowds back.

But the second reason is said to be a popular backlash against the militants who ran amok on 8 October. That backlash has seen secular nationalist parties, in particular, mobilize public opinion against violent protesters to discourage any further riots.

The nationalist parties here draw their strength from Baluchistan's majority ethnic Baluchs and its second-largest ethnic group, the Pashtun. The nationalist organizers are grassroots rivals of the Islamic militants, as both have long sought support in poorer segments of society that feel left behind by Pakistan's two big establishment parties: the Pakistan Muslim League (of former Prime Minister Nawaz Shariff) and the Pakistan People's Party (of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto).

Mehrab Baloch is the chairman of the Baluch Student Organization, one of several Baluch nationalist groups that joined with the larger Baluch Nationalist Party to condemn the riots. He says the public criticism and the tighter security have made it unlikely such violent protests will occur again in Quetta over the Afghan crisis.

"The nationalist parties have tried to mobilize public opinion against the violent protests that were organized by the religious parties, saying they have destroyed public property and caused a lot of damage to innocent people. And since the protests, the government has greatly stepped up its security measures. Those are the main reasons why, in the last weeks, there has been no further destruction."

The Baluch Nationalist Party was joined by the Pashtun nationalist Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party in criticizing the militants over the violent protests. The two parties both have held their own peaceful protests condemning the U.S. bombing and demanding a halt to it on humanitarian grounds.

The Pashtun nationalist party also has said it supports the return of the former Afghan king, Zahir Shah, to Afghanistan and the formation of a new broad-based government there. Pakistan's Pashtuns share many linguistic and cultural ties with Afghanistan's majority Pashtun population.

The positions of the nationalist parties illustrate the degree of difficulty that Islamic militants now face here and in other parts of Pakistan as they continue efforts to generate mass public support for the Taliban and a reversal of the pro-U.S. policy of President Pervez Musharraf.

The largest protests so far have brought out some 20,000 people in the commercial capital, Karachi, and smaller numbers around Peshawar and Quetta, both on the Afghan border. Today, three people were reportedly killed in central Pakistan when police opened fire to disperse several thousand anti-government demonstrators. Smaller incidents involving pro-Taliban supporters were reported today in Peshawar and Karachi.

But the country, including the other major city of Lahore, has remained mostly quiet in the days since the U.S.-led bombing campaign on Afghanistan began 7 October. Militant Islamic groups had called for a nationwide commercial slowdown -- dubbed a "wheel-jam" -- for 9 November. Reuters reports that roads were largely deserted and shops shuttered today, but notes the government also declared today a national holiday to mark the birthday of national poet Allama Iqbal.

In one measure of how little the militant protests have disrupted the country's political and commercial life so far, President Musharraf set off on 7 November on a six-day trip to Europe and the United States to underscore Pakistan's support for the U.S.-led war on terror.

Political experts in Quetta say that, while public concern over the U.S. bombings remains high, most people are more focused upon local issues than upon the fate of the Taliban. In Baluchistan, those issues are mostly economic and center upon demands for local control of the province's natural resources.

Ikram Ahmed is the news editor in Quetta of the nationwide Urdu-language newspaper "The Daily Jang." He says the major issue for most people in Baluchistan -- one of the country's least developed regions -- is to get a greater share of profits from the province's oil and gas business. Under Pakistan's constitution, all of the country's natural resources are under the control of the central government, and the revenues go to Islamabad.

"The major local issue in Baluchistan is provincial autonomy. The local leadership of Baluchs and Pashtuns think that they have natural resources [here] of all types. They have natural gas, they have minerals, they have oil. So they say that we should be given more provincial autonomy and all the natural resources should be under the control of the provincial government so they can benefit from the natural resources for the development of their own people. So, they are demanding there should be a change in the constitution."

Baluchistan, which in geography makes up some 43 percent of Pakistan's area, is largely composed of desert and arid mountain ranges. The population numbers some 6.5 million people out of Pakistan's total population of 140 million.

Ahmed says that amid the current Afghan crisis, the most worrisome thing for most people here is the prospect it could generate a massive new influx of refugees. Large numbers of refugees could put further stress on Baluchistan's water resources when the province, like much of the region, has been suffering a serious drought for the past three years.

At the same time, Ahmed says many local people fear any new refugees would stay in Baluchistan, as have previous waves of refugees, adding new competition in the local economy. That is because the refugees have traditionally viewed Pakistan as offering better economic opportunities than exist in war-shattered Afghanistan, and they are willing to work for less than local people as they start their new lives.

"Many Afghan refugees who have come previously to Baluchistan have never returned because they find good opportunities here for earning, and they know that in Afghanistan there are no opportunities and they cannot even live there. So they don't return and [many] have also gotten Pakistani identity cards, and they have become, to some extent, a part of the local population."

Ahmed says that means that even as most Pakistanis here have great sympathy for ordinary Afghans in the current crisis -- and want the bombing ended quickly -- they also see Afghanistan's problems as clearly distinct from their own.

That sense of distance is well illustrated by another widespread sentiment here: that any new refugee camps should be set up on the Afghan side of the frontier.

Pakistan has closed its border to any new Afghan refugees except for very occasionally admitting those whom officials consider to be the most vulnerable individuals. The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, has been permitted to operate a single camp in Baluchistan for new refugees at the Chaman border crossing near Quetta. The UNHCR said November 9 that Islamabad has agreed to let it open 11 refugee camps along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. UNHCR spokeswoman Claire Doole said in London that the agency hopes to transfer those refugees entering the country illegally and legally to the new sites.

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