Death tolls are rising in Pakistan's Balochistan Province, adding to fear that the low-level separatist conflict in the resource-rich region is worsening.
The violence is highlighted by a wave of targeted assassinations, pitting Baloch separatists against backers and forces of the Pakistani government, and threatening to further destabilize the country's largest province.
Balochistan -- which borders Iran and Afghanistan, and neighbors Pakistan's restive Kyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, and Sindh Provinces -- has long been at the crossroads of regional rivalries and insurgent movements. In recent years, it has been marred by a complicated mix of separatist, sectarian, and religiously motivated violence involving both homegrown and regional insurgents.
Most of the recent violence appears related to the Baloch movement and reveals a campaign of assassinations targeting suspected separatists, political leaders, government officials, journalists, and even teachers and students.
The most recent victims include Baloch politician Abdul Latif Shahwani, a leader of the moderate Balochistan National Party, who was shot dead in the central district of Khuzdar on December 26. The same day four bullet-ridden corpses, later identified as supporters of Balochi nationalist factions, were found around the provincial capital Quetta.
The violence has caused some moderate Baloch political leaders to either move out of their home province or away from Pakistan altogether to avoid being targeted by hard-line separatists, who have called on leaders to give up parliamentary politics and severe all contacts with the government.
Zahoor Ahmed Shahwani, a lawyer working for the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, explains that around 70 corpses have been found and that "most of the victims had petitioned in the Balochistan high court claiming that they were being detained by various [intelligence] agencies or the police."Violence And Displacement
Balochi nationalist factions, some of which are pursuing an armed insurrection aimed at secession from Pakistan, have accused Islamabad of kidnapping and detaining thousands of Balochi political activists in recent years. They are dubbed "missing persons" by Pakistani media, and their families often protest for their release. Pakistani government and security forces regularly deny such detentions, while also periodically releasing political activists, sometimes after years of incarceration.
In return, Islamabad accuses Baloch separatists of killing soldiers, pro-government politicians, and "settlers" -- ethnic Punjabis who have lived in Balochi cities for generations.
The situation began to deteriorate in 2004, when Baloch separatists launched their fifth insurgency over claim that the Pakistani military was exploiting the region's natural resources and marginalizing its population of 4 million Balochis, already among the poorest in the country.
The August 2006 killing of septuagenarian Balochi leader Nawab Akbar Bugti in a Pakistani military operation hastened the insurgency. Since then, thousands of Balochi separatists, Pakistani soldiers, political leaders, and civilians have died while the conflicts has displaced at least 200,000 people, half of whom were Punjabi settlers who fled to neighboring provinces.
Sayed Ali Shah, a journalist based in Quetta provincial capital of Balochistan, says that the targeted killings now are most numerous in regions populated by Balochis -- a vast plateau stretching from the Arabian Sea to southern Afghanistan. He says that overall security in the region is on the decline, while kidnappings for ransom are on the rise.
"Few of the people involved in the target assassinations and kidnappings have been arrested. In fact, it will be more appropriate to say that they are never arrested," Shah says.
He says that militant groups often claim responsibility for such killings. But the rising insecurity in the region means that it's increasingly difficult to establish the real identity and motives behind such assassinations. Reasons For Conflict
While some are obviously tied to the Baloch separatist issue, conflicts between Sunnis and Shi'ites, a new Taliban push against local opponents, and random kidnappings for ransom must also be considered.
Police gather at the site of an attempted suicide attack on Balochistan's chief minister Nawab Aslam Khan Raisiani.
A December 7 suicide bombing in Quetta highlights the complications in determining who is behind the violence. Nawab Aslam Khan Raisiani, the chief minister of Balochistan, narrowly escaped the attack, which targeted his convoy in the provincial capital. Lashkar-e Jahngvi al-Alami, a hard-line anti-Shi'a militant organization initially claimed the responsibility for the attack but retracted the claim the same day. Afterward, both the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, or Movement of Pakistani Taliban, and the shadowy Baloch Liberation United Front claimed responsibility for the attack.
"One the one hand, we have target assassinations and kidnappings while on the other we also have a sectarian war," Shah says.
For years, Afghanistan has accused Pakistan of sheltering the remnants of the Taliban regime in Quetta. But if the Taliban were using the capital as a base of operations, then it avoided engaging in assassinations of anti-Taliban Pashtun tribal leaders and politicians.
Change Of Strategy?
Local observers suggest that the November assassination of Jilani Khan Achackzai, leader of moderate Awami National Party in Balochistan, could indicate a change of strategy. In the months leading up to his assassination, "night letter" pamphlets directed against Achackzai had purportedly been distributed by the Taliban.
Despite the climbing death toll and deteriorating situation in Balochistan, Islamabad has yet to unveil a comprehensive political approach toward resolving the crisis.
The government, led by the Pakistan Peoples Party, has publically apologized to the Baloch people and announced an economic package for the region. But, it has not had much of an impact, and such overtures do little to placate Balochi insurgents.
Senior Balochi journalist Shahzada Zulfiqar predicts that in the absence of meaningful negotiations, the province will continue its downward spiral.
"The use of force from both sides is wrong," Zulfiqar asserts. "This is a political problem and can be resolved by making the leaders sit with each other."RFE/RL's correspondent Khudai Noor Nasar contributed to this report from Quetta