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Balochistan's worst phase

india Updated: Aug 30, 2006 15:07 IST
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The killing of powerful local leader Sardar Akbar Khan Bugti in a meticulously conducted military operation marks the peaking of a conflict between Pakistani authorities and rebels in Balochistan, Pakistan's largest, energy-rich and yet most neglected province.

It is also the most ferocious one, going by the use of sophisticated arms and equipment.

If the rebels - into their fifth rebellion in six decades - have used missiles, according to some Western reports, from well fortified hideouts across a difficult terrain, the government too has diverted satellites and modern communication monitoring sets given by the US for tracing Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and other remnants of the Al-Qaeda believed to be holed in this province bordering both Afghanistan and Iran.

The Pakistan Army managed to pinpoint the cave in which Nawab Bugti was hiding, probably using this equipment, and fired missiles, according to reports that have been promptly denied as "fiction" by Pakistan Government.

"Cleaning up Balochistan" has been a prime necessity for the Musharraf regime that is keen on exploiting the province's rich minerals on one hand and, on the other, provide access to the Arabian Sea to the Chinese who have invested heavily in a port and a naval base at Gwadar.

The building of Gwadar facilities witnessed attacks on the Chinese engineers, allegedly by the separatist Balochistan Libration Army (BLA).

A low-level insurgency in the last two years that Bugti was suspected of leading, has seen a mixture of indiscriminate bombings and targeted attacks on the region's energy and transportation infrastructure.

Balochistan has witnessed revolts right from Pakistan's creation that was clandestinely opposed by some tribes.

Since the forcible annexation of the Baloch Khanate of Kalat by Pakistan in 1947, the Balochistan region has seen a succession of revolts against political centralization and resource exploitation.

There have revolts in 1948, 1958, 1962 and a four-year phase between 1973-77. Each of them was suppressed ruthlessly.

During the 1973-77 phase, under then prime minister Z A Bhutto's government, Balochistan was bombarded severely, giving its then army chief, Gen Tikka Khan, the sobriquet of "Bomber of Balochistan," by the opposition parties.

Accounting for 43 per cent of Pakistan's territory, Balochistan is, however, sparsely populated at barely 6.5 million people.

It also accounts for a fifth of the nation's natural resources that remain largely untapped for lack of development and socio-economic stability.

Natural gas is Balochistan's economic mainstay. Exploited since 1953, it accounts for 36 per cent of the total gas produced in Pakistan.

A larger share of royalty has been almost a perennial demand with the rebels even as new gas fields are being discovered.

Little of the wealth now produced in Balochistan has found its way back into the province, which remains badly underdeveloped.

It faces a major financial crisis even as new natural gas discoveries continue. As a result, pipelines and other energy installations have been primary targets of Baloch nationalists.

A low-level insurgency in the last two years has seen a mixture of bombings and targeted attacks on the region's energy and transportation infrastructure. The government has retaliated using helicopter gunships.

Musharraf's government has recently committed large sums for development projects, but some distrustful Baloch nationalists view these as further efforts at "colonisation".

Their viewpoint has been strengthened by things like people from Punjab being allowed to buy land in and around Gwadar facilities, only to reap large earnings from their re-sale.

Then there is the proverbial "India factor" in the Balochistan imbroglio, according to Pakistani politicians and security analysts.

Writing in "Global Terrorism Analysis", James McGregor says: "Although Islamabad's accusations of foreign assistance to the Baloch insurgents typically omit naming suspect countries, Pakistani security services apparently fear the intervention of agents from their traditional Indian rival, as well as others from certain Gulf states said to be unhappy about the opening of a new port in the Baloch coastal town of Gwadar."

The accusations against New Delhi have mounted since the opening of Indian consulates Afghan cities close to the Pakistan border.

McGregor surmises: "Balochistan's society is remarkably insular, however, and is unlikely to fall under the thrall of what Balochis call "outsiders."

From any regime, governing Balochistan has been difficult. Special funds and job packages announced this year have failed to please the Balochs, while the government is short of officials willing to be posted there despite huge incentives.

Government plans to build military bases in Balochistan to secure valuable energy resources are seen as the imposition of a foreign occupation force.

The former commander of Pakistan's armed forces, General Jehangir Karamat, has warned that a prolonged military presence in Balochistan would be "counter-productive".

The leader of the Pashtun minority political party, Mehmood Khan Achakzai, claims that the presence of the army and Pakistan's ISI has turned Balochistan into "a prison cell."

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