Explosive mix in Pakistan's gas province

March 22nd, 2005  

Topic: Explosive mix in Pakistan's gas province


Source:BBC News

A week of recent violence in the desert province of Balochistan left half of Pakistan bereft of gas supplies and the danger of an explosive civil war between the army and Baloch nationalists and tribesmen.

President Pervez Musharraf, who faces increasing political isolation, is already dealing with a rebellion by fundamentalist Pashtun tribesmen in the north-west allied to al-Qaeda, and a bloody civil war between Shias and Sunnis in Gilgit in the far north.

The two conflicts have claimed hundreds of lives.

However, a war in Balochistan would be more deadly for the government.

It could create the spark for more widespread unrest among smaller groups who are all opposed to what they see as the Punjabi-dominated army and who feel left out of the military-run political system.

Over the past five years, President Musharraf has sidelined smaller nationalist parties in the provinces in favour of an alliance with the mullahs.

The nationalist parties had shared power with the centre in the 1990s during Pakistan's decade of failed democracy.

You won't know what hit you," Musharraf warned tribesmen

Rape claims

Any conflict in Balochistan would involve Iran and Afghanistan, who have substantial Baloch populations.

It could also derail the India-Pakistan peace process as Islamabad has accused Delhi of funding and arming the Baloch insurgents - a charge India denies.

On 11 January, Bugti tribesmen, encouraged by their chief, Sardar Akbar Bugti, and the secretive nationalist Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), attacked the country's largest gas producing plant at Sui after local police accused an army captain of raping a female doctor working there.

Sui is in the heart of the Bugti tribal area - a land of dry, barren mountains and desert.

At the end of a five-day battle, in which the tribesmen stormed the gas company compound, eight people, including three soldiers, were killed and 35 people wounded.

The army rushed thousands of troops and paramilitary forces to Sui.

The rebels were heavily armed, well trained and organised, using sophisticated satellite telephones.

They fired 430 rockets and 60 mortar rounds at the Sui plant, said Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Sherpao.

President Musharraf, a former commando, then threw fuel on the fire, saying: "Don't push us. It isn't the 1970s when you can hit and run and hide in the mountains. This time you won't even know what hit you."

Fifth insurgency

His comments and the fact that the army captain has still not been arrested, infuriated the tribesmen and opposition politicians, who warned the army not to create "another Bangladesh" - the 1971 civil war that divided then East Pakistan from West Pakistan.

"In case of military operations, the Baloch people will fight a decisive battle this time... till the last drop of their blood," warned Sardar Ataullah Mengal, chief of the Mengal tribe, allied to the Bugti.

Baloch nationalists demanding greater political rights, autonomy and control over their natural resources, have led four insurgencies - in 1948, 1958-59, 1962-63 and 1973-77 - which have been brutally suppressed by the army.

Now a fifth is under way and this time the insurgents are demanding independence.

For the past two years, hit-and-run raids against the army have occurred all over the province.

Last May, three Chinese engineers were killed in the port town of Gwadar by a roadside bomb, an attack admitted by the BLA.

The danger is that the present conflict has for the first time united educated nationalists with the tribesmen.

The Sui incident led to the most powerful Baloch fighting tribes - the Mengals, Mazaris and Marris - uniting and rushing to aid their beleaguered Bugti brothers.

They all camped together outside Sui and in Dera Bugti, ready to take on the army.

While the BLA demands outright independence, Baloch nationalist politicians are calling for more jobs for the Baloch people, greater gas royalties from Sui, an end to building more military cantonments in the province and greater Baloch ownership of the massive port being built by China and the government in Gwadar.

"We oppose the colonial policies of the state," says Sanaullah Baloch, a spokesman for the Balochistan National Party, a legal political group.

The insurgents have a stranglehold over the rest of the country due to Sui gas.

Sui produces about 45% of Pakistan's total production. Massive shortages followed the attack.

The state-owned Pakistan Petroleum Ltd, which runs the field, admitted the damage was far more severe than previously thought and might take a month to repair.

Many of its technicians ran away or refused to work on repairs because of security concerns.

After the attack, steel, fertiliser and electricity plants were forced to curtail production.

Domestic consumers in Karachi and Lahore have had gas cuts of up to 12 hours a day.

Dialogue needed

President Musharraf has made no friends among the Baloch people in the past five years and now he is paying the price.

By befriending Pashtun mullahs in the eastern part of the province, he has made the Baloch people feel more deprived.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, who tends to see everything in economic terms, is now trying to force feed Balochistan with development funds and aid when what is needed is a dialogue that brings moderate Baloch politicians back into the political mainstream.

In the past, every military regime has alienated the Baloch people, leading to unrest and insurgency.

Unless the army is prepared to step off the political stage and allow democracy to flourish the Baloch people are unlikely to be satisfied.