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Last Updated: Friday, 4 February, 2005, 17:49 GMT
Explosive mix in Pakistan's gas province

By Ahmed Rashid in Lahore

In his latest guest column for the BBC News website, journalist Ahmed Rashid looks at the problems afflicting Pakistan's troubled south-western province of Balochistan.

Baloch tribesmen with expended shells
Baloch tribesmen with spent shells fired into the Sui gas plant

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.

The present conflict has for the first time united educated nationalists with the tribesmen

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.

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.

Gas cooking in Karachi
Karachi has seen gas cuts of up to 12 hours a day

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.

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

"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.

To read Ahmed Rashid's future columns, bookmark bbcnews.com/southasia

Here is a selection of your views on this column.

As usual Mr Rashid is disappointing, desperate and going too far to proove Musharraf wrong. I wonder how people could write such stuff. Every disturbance, by a handful of so called nationalists or Sardars or the Bugtis whoever they are we don't care, should and would be crushed and eventually you will see Afghanistan will be a part of Pakistan... Dont exploit the Balochs... they are our brothers and we love them
Manzar, UK

Nice analysis in the column. The problem of Sui needs a political solution. If this problem is not solved through dialogue, it will be dangerous for Pakistan.
Shafqat Shahzad, Pakistan

Once again a Musharraf-hater like Ahmed Rashid is out crying wolf about some "major crisis" that will destroy Musharraf. There is not revolt in NWFP and neither is there any genuine revolt in Baluchistan. The recent violence was about blackmailing the government to secure higher gas royalties and transit fees.
Aamir Ali, Pakistan

I fully agreed with Ahmed Rashid's views on the present state of Pakistan. The solution of the present crisis is only through dialogue with smaller provinces like Balochistan and Sindh on autonomy.
Rafiq Mangi, Thailand

Pakistan is reaping the fruits of its own deeds. The president thinks he can solve all the problems by brute force but it is not so.
Siddhartha, India

Pakistanis talk about rights and oppression of Kashmiris in India. But it is really sad how they treat the Baloch people, just because it is a desert and does not have economic importance. Because Kashmir is rich in natural resources they want it, but neglect Balochistan.
Shamanth, India, Bangalore

No sovereign country tolerates such kind of behaviour from a group of people. Some in Balochistan claim that they have been deprived of their rights. But my question to them is, who in Pakistan has rights?
Fawad Muzaffar, USA

It seems that Pakistan's unity is being held together with chewing-gum that is destined to disintegrate unless something is done soon. President Musharraf had better find out what this "something" that unites a nation actually is.
Niraj, Australia

I appreciate President Musharraf`s courage to stand up to nationalists who think the gas fields are their property. Of course they are not their property. I think the government should take every necessary action to take them down, even through the use of force.
Altaf Hussain, Australia

I am not satisfied with Pakistan's policy towards the people of Balochistan. Pakistan does not have the right to take the resources from Balochistan and treat the people there as second-class citizens. Balochistan is part of Afghanistan and was taken from Afghanistan during British invasion of Afghanistan.
Abdul, Afghanistan

Pakistan has occupied Balochistan for 58 years. Why does it defend Kashmiri people yet ignore the people of Balochistan?
Ali, Sweden

I have read several articles written by Ahmed Rashid over the past year and all carry a very clear bias against a government which is tackling a wide range of social and economic problems ignored if not made worse during the Bhutto and Sharif eras.
Hasib, England

Why doesn't the US invade and democratise Pakistan instead of Iraq? After all they have a bigger WMD capability than Saddam and are run by a dictator too.
Elisa A. Goulart, Brazil

Unless the army stops taking over everything in Pakistan, and punishes its officers for crimes they commit, this insurgency might spread to the other parts of Pakistan. Dialogue is the only process out.
Shahid, Pakistan

The Pakistani army is here to stay. Wishing for representative democracy as a solution to the Baloch crisis is na´ve.
Muhammad Arham, U.K, London

The Balochis have been denied their share of natural gas revenues. Instead, the government is settling Punjabis in large numbers in an attempt to make them a minority in their own ancestral homeland. General Musharraf's imperial threats betray the army's contempt for the Balochis.
Thiruvengadam Ramakrishnan, United States of America

These so called educated nationalists that Ahmed Rashid is referring to in his article are sons and relatives of tribal Sardars (feudal lords) who are against any kind of progress in their backward areas so that they may keep their Mazaras (slaved labour) in their hold.
Omar Khan, Pakistan

Pakistan is an artificial country forced upon the people of South Asia by the British. It will eventually fall apart, it is only a matter of time. The Baloch people have every right to demand their independence.
Abdullah, USA



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