By MATTHEW PENNINGTON, Associated Press Writer Sat May 27, 1:19 PM ET
QUETTA, Pakistan - In the remote desert of Baluchistan, a war for independence is distracting Pakistan as it struggles to contain Taliban and al-Qaida militants along the Afghan border. It is up against an array of Baluch fighters who accuse it of plundering the hidden riches of the arid southwestern province : natural gas.
It’s Pakistan’s ’other’ war, a sideshow to its battle in troubled Waziristan some 250 miles to the north, where pro-Taliban fighters have gained stature and
Osama bin Laden is still suspected to be hiding.
But the conflict in Baluchistan is also a costly one, feeding off the deprivation in what is Pakistan’s largest and poorest province despite sitting on the nation’s principal gas reserves. The army put down another tribal rebellion here in 1974, reportedly leaving about 3,000 dead.
"It’s not just a few tribal chiefs against the government. There’s a genuine movement of Baluch nationalists. There are people enlisting every day and picking up arms," said Asma Jehangir, chairwoman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Violence escalated sharply after rockets landed about 300 yards from President Gen. Pervez Musharraf while he was visiting the town of Kohlu in December. The Pakistanis then launched an offensive against the Bugti and Marri tribes, whose leaders control swaths of Baluchistan like feudal lords with militias numbering thousands.
People in Baluchistan feel shortchanged. The royalties on their gas have barely changed since 1952. Only 25 percent of villages are electrified, and only 20 percent have safe drinking water. The shadowy and recently outlawed Baluchistan Liberation Army is blamed for near-daily attacks on gas pipelines and electricity pylons that have disrupted the province’s power supply. It claimed responsibility for bombings at a police training school at the provincial capital Quetta on May 11 that killed seven people.
Musharraf says he wants to develop Baluchistan. He is building a deep sea port at its coast and encouraging foreign investment. But new military garrisons intended to secure the restive region have bred suspicion and hardened resistance.
"The government wants to take complete control of the gas fields for future digging and drilling. Their policy is to exterminate the Baluch," said Nawab Akbar Bugti, 79, the silver-bearded Bugti chief, speaking to The Associated Press by satellite phone from his mountain hideout.
He said thousands of soldiers and paramilitaries have been deployed, using helicopter gunships, bombs and artillery. He claimed hundreds of civilians have been killed and tens of thousands displaced from around Dera Bugti, some 200 miles southeast of Quetta.
In a report on two recent fact-finding missions to Baluchistan, the rights commission accused the military of "indiscriminate bombing" and listed more than 60 dead in December and January, many of them women and children. It also voiced "grave concern" over militants mining roads.
The government denied killing civilians, presents the problem as one of law and order, and is cagey about discussing its handling of it.
Raziq Bugti, a spokesman for the elected Baluchistan provincial government, said that if militias disbanded, gave up heavy weapons and stopped challenging Pakistan’s sovereignty, negotiations were possible.
If not, "force will be used. It’s very clear," he said.
The Baluch make up about half of the province’s 6.5 million people. They have coexisted with ethnic Pashtuns, Sindhis and Punjabis but long-brewing tensions are increasingly coming to the surface.
"Punjabis should leave," said Asif Baluch of the Baluch Students’ Organization, which advocates independence for the Baluch. "We’re not against them as human beings, but as a dominant class."
He accused intelligence agencies of holding Baluch activists for months, sometimes years, without trial.
Baluch separatists have started targeting ethnic Punjabis who dominate Pakistan’s bureaucracy and security services. On March 18, at a mountain picnic spot southeast of Quetta, masked men shot dead two junior government officials they believed to be Punjabis. A third survived his gunshot wounds by playing dead.
Faruq Shah, a Pashtun, was spared after the attackers twice checked his ID. "I cried and begged for their lives," he said. "It feels like I escaped from the jaws of death."