The gas pipeline to the Uch power plant in the southwestern Pakistani province of Baluchistan was blown up late Jan. 3, cutting off gas supplies to the plant. The attack came as sporadic rocket and artillery duels continued between Pakistani security forces and Baluch insurgents in the town of Dera Bugti.
Baluchistan, rich in natural gas reserves, was plagued by violent attacks throughout 2005, with Tribal groups are demanding more political autonomy and a greater share of the area’s resources. Pakistani security forces began an offensive last month after rockets were fired as president Pervez Musharraf was visiting the region. A day later a commander of the Frontier Corps was injured when shots were fired at his helicopter. Recent days have seen numerous Baluch tribespeople arrested in police sweeps. (AKI, Jan. 4)
The regional Jamhoori Watan Party (JWP) claimed that two people have been killed and eight women and children suffered injuries in the ongoing armed exchanges. JWP’s secretary-general Agha Shahid Hasan Bugti claimed that security forces attacked tribesmen near the Loti gas field area “but due to stiff resistance the militia beat a retreat.” A government official claimed that a “camp of outlaws” in the Bekar area had been smashed.
On Jan. 2, Pakistan’s foreign office told India to “mind its own business” in response to a recent statement made by the Indian administration expressing concern over the violence in Baluchistan.
When asked to comment on statements made by the chief minister of Baluchistan alleging foreign involvement in the unrest in the province, Pakistan’s foreign office spokesperson, Tasnim Aslam said that there were “indications and evidence,” but did not elaborate on what they were.
In Islamabad Jan. 2, opposition leaders staged a protest against the on-going military operation in the province. The opposition leaders carried banners and placards and shouted different slogans such as “stop state terrorism in Balochistan,”, “say no to military rule”, “go Musharraf go”, “down with military aggression”, and “down with the military dictatorship.” (AKI, Jan. 3)
Baluchistan is particularly strategic because the planned Iran-India gas pipeline would cut through the restive province. (Indian Express, July 15, 2005)
The Baluch straddle the border of Pakistan and Iran, and are raising demands for autonomy in both states. A 1997 Human Rights Watch report noted that Baluchis face persecution in Iran:
The Baluchis complain that as a Sunni minority they face institutionalized discrimination by the Shi’a state. In addition they complain of discrimination in the economic, educational and cultural fields. Attempts by the Baluchis to form political organizations to advance their interests have been blocked by the authorities. Baluchi sources claim that a systematic plan has been set in motion by the authorities over the past two years to pacify the region by changing the ethnic balance in major Baluchi cities such as Zahedan, Iran-Shahr, Chabahar, and Khash.
Yet a May 31, 2005 analysis in Pakistan’s Daily Times suggested that Iran is supporting the Baluch rebels in Pakistan in order to place pressure on (or destabilize) Islamabad:
The Bush administration does not even attempt to hide its desire to see regime change in Iran. To that end, reports of impending covert CIA and Special Forces operations inside Iran and on its periphery have begun to surface. The US presence in the region, and in Afghanistan in particular where it appears to be digging in for a long haul, has allowed the occupying US military to construct a huge new air and military base south of the old Soviet-built base at Shindand in Herat province. The new American base lies barely 17 kilometres from the Afghanistan-Iran border. Earlier, we had unconfirmed reports of American Special Forces teams having been allowed to operate against Iran from Pakistani soil. But these were vigorously denied by Pakistan. But suspicions and fears persist that if Pakistani “facilities” could be used by the Americans against Afghanistan they might also be used against Iran under certain circumstances.
Should that happen, the obvious candidate for such “facilities” would be Balochistan province which shares a border with Iranian Balochistan. The naval port and military base under construction in Gwadar, Tehran fears, could be used as a launch pad for US forces seeking to destabilise the mullahs’ regime in Tehran by encouraging separatist stirrings in the restive Sistan-Balochistan province. Interestingly, Iran stood accused recently of providing financial, logistical and moral backing for the simmering insurgency in Pakistani Balochistan, a charge Tehran vigorously denied. What cannot be denied, according to a former Pakistani interior minister speaking to The Daily Telegraph, is that Radio Tehran broadcasts 90-100 minutes of Pakistan-targeted propaganda programmes daily. These programmes are critical of General Musharraf’s regime and its close ties with the US. Iranian apprehensions of meddling in its Balochistan province have been sharpened by the construction of a military base housing an army battalion with heavy weapons, including tanks, on the Pakistani side of the border. It has also been alleged that Pakistani intelligence is monitoring alleged Iranian activity in Pakistani Balochistan. United Press International, an Indian news agency to be sure, recently quoted unnamed US officials claiming that Pakistan had granted the Iranian Mujahideen-e-Khalq organisation permission to operate from Pakistani Balochistan. If true, this is sure to escalate tensions between Islamabad and Tehran over the Marxist group that has been waging armed struggle against the Iranian government since 1979 and enjoyed Saddam Hussein’s protection until 2003. The Mujahideen-e-Khalq is reportedly in talks with Washington, while its fighters are under US protection in Camp Ashraf in Iraq.