Magazine article Newsweek International

'It's War Now'; A Major Rebellion in Baluchistan Puts President Pervez Musharraf's Tribal Policies to the Test

Magazine article Newsweek International

'It's War Now'; A Major Rebellion in Baluchistan Puts President Pervez Musharraf's Tribal Policies to the Test

Article excerpt

Byline: Zahid Hussain

Their faces partially covered by huge white turbans, the heavily armed tribesmen dig into their positions on the edge of a rocky outcropping. Others stand guard on the surrounding parched brown hills. There is no sign of civilization save a few thatched huts that serve as the fighters' camp. One of the men, a veteran rebel named Javandan, sits quietly playing with his AK-47. His group is fighting the Pakistani military, which he says is "bombarding our areas and killing innocent people. We don't have any choice but to resist." The menacing rattle of machine-gun fire echoes in the distance. Nearby, another fighter listens to a wireless unit to extract information about the movement of government troops.

The guerrillas belong to the shadowy Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA), an insurgent group that's said to have 5,000 men under arms, waging a bitter war in the southwestern province of Baluchistan against Pakistan's government. Baluchistan is the largest, poorest and least-populated province in the country--but it has large quantities of natural gas, coal and copper, and it supplies half of all Pakistan's energy needs. The rebels, like most of the 6.5 million people in the province, want greater political autonomy and more control over the region's abundant mineral resources.

The Baluchs have chafed at Islamabad's treatment for decades. One of their chief complaints is that the government has been stingy with royalty payments for gas supplies. The province has its own assembly, but observers say the Pakistani Army effectively runs the place, a major irritant in a fiercely independent tribal region.

Tensions flared last year when President Pervez Musharraf established three new Army garrisons in the province. The military already has 70,000 troops confronting Qaeda-backed Islamic militants in neighboring North-West Frontier province. Now it's locked in a new battle with a secular separatist movement in Baluchistan that, analysts say, could become Musharraf's toughest crisis. "Instability in Baluchistan would seriously destabilize an already fragile Pakistan," says Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. And it could further unsettle neighboring Afghanistan. (Baluchistan is home to an untold number of Taliban sympathesizers, who've been stoking resistance to the U.S.-backed government of Hamid Karzai.)

The fighting in Baluchistan escalated last month, after Musharraf narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. The president was visiting a military garrison in the rebel stronghold in Kohlu district, heavily populated by Marri tribesmen, when several rockets exploded close by. A senior government official said it was a close call for the president, who has survived at least three assassination attempts by Qaeda supporters.

Musharraf has vowed to crush the rebellion. …

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