Sunday, January 16, 2005

Balochistan is Potential Trouble Unless Musharraf Offers Concessions

ISLAMABAD, Jan 15 : A tribal movement for greater political and economic rights in Balochistan has the potential to explode into a major insurgency unless the government offers concessions, commentators say.

Ethnic nationalists in Pakistan's resource-rich but poverty-stricken Baluchistan have been waging a low-level battle against central rule for decades, involving mostly ineffective small-scale bombings and rocket attacks.

But this month has seen a surge in activity, culminating in a bloody attack on Tuesday that has cut off supplies from the country's main gas field for days, disrupting industry and raising doubts about the government's ability to maintain order.

The clashes killed as many as 18 people and forced the government to rush in additional troops to protect the vital gas fields.

"These attacks show that there is a lot of discontent among Baluchis," said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a newspaper editor and expert on tribal affairs. "It shows Baluch youth are again ready to take up arms and fight for their rights."

Sparsely populated Baluchistan is home to reserves of natural gas and oil that provide for most of Pakistan's needs. It is also the site a key infrastructure development project, the Gwadar sea port, which is being built with the help of China.

The exploitation of resources by the Pakistani government has long been opposed by Baluchis who argue they are not reaping the benefits. They fear projects like Gwadar will also benefit other ethnic groups more than Baluchis.

The resentment dates back to the creation of Pakistan in 1947 and the region has seen several armed conflicts with the federal government, including a bloody insurgency in the 1970s that was brutally crushed by the military.

Baluchi militants say the attack on the gas fields was retaliation for the rape of a doctor in Baluchistan last month which they blamed on security forces.

They have also been worried by plans to build at least three more military bases in the province, which they see as evidence of plans to tighten rather than relax central control.

Sanaullah Baluch, a spokesman of the Baluchistan National Party, a legal group that says it has no links to the militants but shares their aims, said natural resources, ports, shipping and security should be controlled by the provincial government.

"We oppose cantonments, we oppose the federal government sending troops. We oppose colonial policies," he said.

Analysts say the nationalists have been further alienated from the political mainstream under the military-led government of President Pervez Musharraf since 1999.

Nationalists had shared power with civilian governments in the 1990s but were effectively sidelined after pro-military groups forged a coalition with an Islamic alliance to control the provincial assembly.

Evidence of deteriorating security came in May when three Chinese technicians working on the Gwadar port project were killed by a bomb claimed by Baluch nationalists.

Baluchistan has also seen a series of attacks in recent months by Islamic extremists furious at Musharraf's support for the U.S.-led war on terror and moves toward peace with India.

But experts say chances are remote of cooperation between Islamic militants and left-leaning Baluch nationalists.

Musharraf has been incensed by the recent nationalist attacks and warned he was willing to resort to force if necessary.

"It isn't the 1970s when you can hit and run and hide in the mountains," he told the Baluchi militants. "This time you won't even know what hit you."

Yet analysts said Musharraf could not afford to resort to force, with the military stretched chasing Islamic militants in the northwest and needed for security against neighboring India.

The Friday Times weekly said Musharraf needed instead to find ways to accommodate Baluchi representatives in national politics, a view echoed by commentator Ayaz Amir in the Dawn newspaper.

"If 1/40th of the ... flexibility shown towards India were shown towards the Baluch people, Baluchistan would be Pakistan's most peaceful province," he said.- Reuters

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