Sunday, August 16, 2009

Baloch militants make a comeback?

By Sajid Hussain

The Baloch uprising, remaining eclipsed by a much more sophisticated insurgency in Fata and Swat for quiet some time, has made a conspicuous comeback after the abduction of UNHCR's Balochistan chief John Solecki and its claim by a previously unknown Baloch militant outfit Balochistan Liberation United Front (BLUF). A videotape of the kidnapped official was released on Friday in which the kidnappers threatened to kill Solecki within 72 hours unless their demands are met.

Among other things, the incident, which should be seen in a broader perspective of events that have been taking place in Balochistan since 2001, unveils two important aspects of the Baloch militancy: 1) emergence of a new militant group, and 2) the first-time use of a Taliban-like tactic by the otherwise secular Baloch militants.

Both these developments are a matter of worry for the Pakistan government as well as the Western powers, as I will try to explain in the lines ahead.

Previously, three militant organisations have been fighting Pakistani security forces for what they call the 'Baloch cause'. The Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) was the first to launch the insurgency in 2001. It was led by veteran nationalist leader Nawab Khair Bux Marri's son Balach Marri until he was assassinated in a little-known encounter with security forces on November 21, 2007. Most of the attacks in Balochistan are claimed by this group, having perhaps the largest infrastructure among the Baloch militant outfits. It's mainly based in Marri areas but its operations are extended to as far as the central Balochistan, including the Brahui-speaking built. The group, known for its resourcefulness, was banned by the government in 2004.

In 2004, another group, the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), earned international fame when it claimed responsibility for killing three Chinese engineers in Gwadar on May 2. Reportedly formed by a former head of the Baloch Students Organisation (BSO), Dr Allah Nazar, the group enjoys support of a significant number of the educated Baloch youth. Dr Nazar was picked up by intelligence agencies on March 25, 2005 from Karachi. However, after remaining missing for around a year, he was surfaced on August 12, 2006 and released after some months. He is in hiding since then. The BLF camps are based in Makkuran and Awaran.

The Baloch Republican Army (BRA) was supposedly created by Brahundag Bugti in 2008 after his grandfather Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti’s assassination on August 26, 2006. The BRA, based in Dera Bugti, has proved to be more aggressive than other groups for the last two years. It has particularly targeted the ‘local associates’ of security forces in Bugti areas.

In the presence of these groups, the appearance of another one should worry the government. There have been rumours in Baloch nationalist circles, as reported by the local media in Balochistan, that the leaderships of the BLA and the BLF have joined hands by agreeing on a merger of the two groups. In view of this, I dash to the conclusion, like many others, that the BLUF, as its name also suggests, is the united front after the merger. If it is true, the Baloch insurgency may gain impetus. The resources and infrastructure of the BLA and the educated cadre of the BLF together tend to give Pakistani forces, already engaged with a ruthless insurgency in the tribal areas, a tough time.

Besides, abduction of a high-profile Westerner is first-of-its-kind activity by the Baloch militants. They have, so far, mostly relied on hit-and-run and remote-controlled device attacks, specifically on military targets. Kidnapping of a Westerner and putting demands for his release is a tactic widely known for the Taliban, who consider Americans and Europeans non-believers and are against their presence in the region. But the Baloch nationalist militants, who do not hide their secular and liberal leanings, have for the first time claimed to have kidnapped a Westerner. It shows their frustration.

“We have kidnapped the UN official to draw the world’s attention to the Baloch cause…. we want the UN to facilitate release of 6,000 missing Baloch and 141 women,” BLUF’s spokesman Shehak Baloch told reporters on phone days after Solecki’s abduction.

The Baloch nationalists have been asking the United Nations and the Western powers to intervene and help them achieve their ‘national rights’. They have particularly demanded help for the release of what they say 6,000 missing Baloch, allegedly abducted by Pakistani intelligence agencies. Recently, a disclosure by a Baloch journalist Munir Mengal -- who was himself abducted and kept in secret custody for around a year -- about rape and torture of a Baloch woman Zarina Marri by intelligence personnel had further provoked the Baloch. Several memorandums were presented to local offices of the United Nations and US consulates by different nationalist groups, asking them to put pressure on Pakistan to release Zarina Marri and other missing persons.

However, neither the world body nor the world power, being too occupied with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Fata, reacted to those appeals. Instead, the United Kingdom included the BLA in its list of international terror groups on Pakistan’s pressure. Later, it arrested Hairbyar Marri and Faiz Baloch on the charge of having links with the BLA on December 4, 2007 in London. The British and Pakistani media had believed at that time that the Baloch leaders were arrested to be exchanged with Pakistan for Rashid Rauf, a suspected terrorist wanted to the UK. This was enough to frustrate the Baloch groups to the extent that they resorted to kidnapping a UN official – an act which may cause them tremendous damage too. They may be declared terrorists by the UN and the US.

Nevertheless, the Baloch militants have sent a strong message to the world body and the Western powers: if you damn care about us we can hurt your interests in the region like Taliban.

The timing of Solecki’s abduction is also important, as it coincided with the arrival of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Pakistan and also the trial of Hairbyar Marri was in a concluding phase. It is also interesting to note that days after Solecki’s abduction, a Crown Court acquitted Marri from three out of five cases.

In view of this, the Pakistan government should act in haste to address the grievances of the Baloch nationalists, as promised by the Pakistan People’s Party during its election campaign. Downplaying the insurgency in Balochistan may prove to be a fatal mistake, as Balochistan is strategically an important region and Pakistan’s adversaries may exploit the situation in the province for their own vested interests. As a gesture of goodwill, sincere efforts should be made to trace the whereabouts of the missing Baloch. It should also be ensured that incidents like that of Zarina Marri would not happen in future as the Baloch are highly sensitive about their women. One should not forget that Nawab Bugti had thrown down the gauntlets when a Sindhi woman was raped in a Sui hospital allegedly by an Army captain.

At the same time, the UN and the US should show restraint over the abduction of Solecki, who is also a US national, and make diplomatic efforts for his release. UN’s human rights body should show its willingness to play a role in the release of the missing Baloch. This will no doubt help creating a conducive environment for Solecki’s release. On the other hand, the supply route for the Nato forces from Peshawar is already insecure and they cannot afford annoying the secular Baloch militants as one of the proposed alternate supply routes passes through Balochistan.

Also, the Baloch militants should avoid opting for Taliban-like tactics that may hurt their case badly -- internationally as well as nationally. Presently, it is believed, at least by some, that they have picked up arms as the last resort after failing to draw government’s attention to their grievances through political means. But the abduction of a human rights activist and making threats to kill him may turn the public opinion against them.

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