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August 11, 2016

Pakistan’s dirty war in Balochistan

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

Quetta hospital bomb blast, killing more than 90 people, is the latest grim reminder to the ceaseless violence in Pakistan’s strife-torn volatile province of Balochistan.

The deafening blast that ripped through scores of mourners in a Quetta hospital on Monday (August 8) has killed at least 93 people, mainly lawyers, in this year's bloodiest terror attack in Pakistan.

The massive explosion occurred when nearly 100 lawyers and some journalists reached the Civil Hospital with the body of Bilal Anwar Kasi, president of the Balochistan Bar Association who was killed earlier.

Lawyers have been targeted several times in recent months in Balochistan. One lawyer, Jahanzeb Alvi, was shot dead on August 3. Bilal Kasi, who himself was shot dead on August 8, had condemned Alvi's murder and announced a two-day boycott of courts. The principal of University of Balochistan's law college, Barrister Amanullah Achakzai, was also shot dead by unknown assailants in June.

Balochistan has experienced targeted killings and disappearance of Balochis by security forces for more than a decade. Pakistan's largest province by area, Balochistan is home to a low-level insurgency by Baloch separatists. Further complicating this chaotic scenario is a horrific campaign of murders against minority Shiite Muslims by Islamic fundamentalist Sunnis, particularly in and around the provincial capital city of Quetta, as well as a flurry of attacks on ethnic Hazaras. 

Ironically, a Pakistani Taliban faction and the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have both claimed responsibility for the deadly suicide attack.  .

"The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan Jamaat-ur-Ahrar takes responsibility for this attack, and pledges to continue carrying out such attacks. We will release a video report on this soon," the group's spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan said in an email, according to Al Jazeera which also quoted ISIL’s Amaq website as saying: "A martyr from the Islamic State [of Iraq and the Levant] detonated his explosive belt at a gathering of justice ministry employees and Pakistani policemen in the city of Quetta."

However, Balochistan Chief Minister Sanaullah Zehri blamed the Indian intelligence agency RAW, saying it was responsible for incidents of terror in Quetta.

The Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has called for a United Nations (UN) probe into the planned killings of lawyers, through suicide attacks and targeted killings, in Balochistan, “where the state has been conducting operations for the past 14 years and where there are thousands of cases of arbitrary arrests, disappearances and extra judicial killings.”

In a statement, the AHRC said it is not possible that the Government of Pakistan can have an impartial and transparent inquiry into the incidents as it is itself a party in the violations of human rights. “There have been more than two inquiry commissions that were formed in order to probe the enforced disappearances. The commissions completed their work in 2014 but the reports have still not been made public and it appears that the government does not have any intention to release them.”

Tellingly, in January 2016, the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP) said that approximately 463 people were forcefully disappeared while 157 mutilated bodies were found from Balochistan in 2015. Nasrullah Baloch, Chairman of VBMP, told a Press Conference at Quetta Press Club, “The VBMPS report is comprised on documents received from Missing persons’ families, Human Rights Organization and political parties.”  Voice for Baloch Missing Persons is a human rights organization representing the families of abducted Baloch persons all over Balochistan.

21,000 people have gone missing in Balochistan

According to Baloch activist Mama Qadeer, around 21,000 people have gone missing in Balochistan, adding that they had received 6,000 mutilated bodies to date. Qadeer was  speaking at a press conference at Karachi Press Club on April 17, 2016. In January 2014, Mama Qadeer led a long march from Quetta to Islamabad to highlight the issue of missing persons and other atrocities by the army-led security forces against the Baloch people.

On  July 26, 2016, a human right activist and the editor of a newspaper Abdul Wahid Baloch was taken away allegedly by the Pakistan security forces and his whereabouts are still unknown. The Baloch National Movement (BNM) organized a protest in Toronto, Canada on July 31, 2016.

Baloch activists accuse the military of bombing entire villages in its attempt to hunt down alleged Baloch militant leaders. Accoring to a BBC report of October 2015, one such military operation was conducted in Awaran district on 18 July 2015, when much of Pakistan was on Eid holiday at the end of Ramadan. The target for the aerial bombardment was Dr Allah Nazar, the chief of the Balochistan Liberation Front  group. The military believes he was killed in the attack. "The operation was unannounced and indiscriminate," points out Bibi Gul, a Baloch human rights activist. "Women and children were killed and thousands left the area. The army cordoned off the entire area. "For nearly a month, people weren't allowed to go there to pick up the dead bodies."

On Sept 12, 213, the Dawn, a leading English newspaper, reported that over the past three years almost 600 mutilated bodies -- more victims of the war between the state of Pakistan and the separatists -- have been found in Balochistan, citing documents from the home and tribal affairs department of the province. 

Balochistan, the largest province of Pakistan which borders Iran and Afghanistan, has oil and gas resources and is afflicted by fighting, violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and a separatist rebellion. The insurgents demand at least autonomy from Islamabad and a larger share of the oil-and-gas revenue generated locally.

For the Balochis, a turning point in their war against the state occurred in 2006, when a prominent Baloch tribal leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti was killed by the Pakistani army. Bugti, 79 years old at the time of his death, had just submitted a list of demands to Islamabad, which, among other things, called for greater local control of natural resources, more autonomy from Islamabad and a moratorium on construction of military bases in the area. 

Bugti’s death was followed a few years later by the killings of Baloch National Movement President Ghulam Mohammed Baloch and two other nationalist leaders -- allegedly by the Pakistani military. Their deaths sparked strikes, protests and civil disturbances that periodically continue to the present day.

The Pakistani government has branded Baloch separatist organizations as “terrorists.” 

The Balochs suffer from high rates of poverty, low literacy and other woes -- all of which serve to fuel an insurgency. According to the World Bank, eight of Pakistan’s 10 most deprived districts are located in Balochistan. Just 22 percent of Balochs are literate, versus 47 percent for Pakistan as a whole, and only 20 percent of Balochs have access to drinking water, versus 86 percent for the country. 

‘Govt may soon lose all control over Balochistan’

Many observers compare the current turmoil in Balochistan to the 1970s situation in the East Pakistan which seceded from the Western wing of Pakistan in December 1971 to become Bangladesh after the Pakistan Army launched a brutal operation to suppress the rebellion. The Pakistan Army, with the help of supporting militias, massacred Bengali students, intellectuals, politicians, civil servants and military defectors during the 1971 Bangladesh genocide. Several million refugees fled to neighboring India which supported the Bengalis in their struggle for independence. In December 1971, the Indian army joined the Bengali rebels to support the Calcutta-based provisional government of Bangladesh. Around 300,000 people were reportedly killed throughout the war for Bangladesh.

The prince of the defunct Kalat state and chief of the Baloch Rabita Ittefaq Tehreek, Prince Mohyuddin Baloch, warned last year that if the government fails to settle the Balochistan issue according to the aspirations of people, it will soon lose all control over the situation.

“We have so far managed to restrain [disgruntled] Baloch people but after Dec 31, 2015 the situation will get out of our control and our rulers will no more be in a position to do anything to reverse it. After the end of this year, we will be forced to allow Baloch people to take any path they like,” said the prince at a press conference held at a local hotel in Karachi in February 2015.

The prince who was federal minister in military ruler Gen Ziaul Haq’s regime said: “So far, our 5,000 children have been killed and some 10,000 people have been kidnapped, but no one should think that the resistance has been crushed. It is correct that Baloch are by nature slow, stubborn and quarrelsome, but when it comes to war no one can defeat them.”

Army controls the narrative on Balochistan

According to BBC, Pakistan has a vibrant and thriving news media. But there's been a virtual blackout of alleged abuses on privately-owned national news channels.

“Journalists say they are under intense pressure to promote a positive image of the army and its chief, General Raheel Sharif - they believe it's part of a public relations offensive to present the army as a saviour of the nation, while discrediting the political class. Foreign reporters are not allowed to travel to Balochistan without the army's approval. Over the years, scores of local reporters have been shot dead. Those who survive live under constant fear of upsetting one side or the other.”

Earlier this month, a journalist colleague reporting on Balochistan was taken to a safe house in Quetta's military garrison where he was lectured on the virtues of being a patriotic citizen, the BBC said adding: Army officers questioned him extensively about his sources and his political views. The officials told him they knew about his family, where his kids went to school and how much money he had in his bank.And then he was informed: "Yes, we are killing the anti-state elements. And we will continue to go after them. At the end of the day, we decide who's a patriot and who's not."

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Chief Editor of the Journal of America ( email: asghazali2011 (@)