Pakistan sets army on tribal protesters

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The Independent Online

Pakistan is poised on the precipice of a tribal war in the vast desert province of Baluchistan after the army unleashed helicopter gunships and heavy weapons on local protesters. The Independent has learnt that during two days of violence, more than 60 tribespeople in the region, including women and children, have been killed. Reports suggest the confrontation is becoming increasingly brutal.

Pakistan is poised on the precipice of a tribal war in the vast desert province of Baluchistan after the army unleashed helicopter gunships and heavy weapons on local protesters. The Independent has learnt that during two days of violence, more than 60 tribespeople in the region, including women and children, have been killed. Reports suggest the confrontation is becoming increasingly brutal.

Baluchistan covers almost half of Pakistan and is home to tribespeople who respect no central law. Outside the main cities, tribal rules apply and the region has traditionally been a no-go area for Pakistani police. Law and order is kept by tribal chiefs paid by the government to keep a semblance of control.

Tensions with Karachi spilled over into violence in January after Pakistani soldiers stationed in the area were accused of raping a local woman doctor. This, together with the attempted eviction of 30,000 tribespeople from the area containing Pakistan's largest gas fields and the imminent opening of a new port in the province, has led to reprisals from local chiefs who accuse Karachi of decades of brutality and neglect.

Nawab Akbar Bugti, one of the tribal chiefs who has been leading local opposition to the government of Pervez Musharraf, says his people have been attacked without provocation.

"The situation was that the army opened up with uniform and concentrated fire with artillery and mortar directly at my house," he told The Independent. "A mortar came through the roof and killed two people sitting to the left of me."

Nawab Bugti says that in total 60 people were killed and more than 150 injured.

The Pakistani military countered by claiming that one of its convoys was attacked as it was passing through the town, killing eight soldiers.

The ripples of what has happened in Dera Bugti could spread much further. Though he is 78, Nawab Bugti commands the loyalty of more than 30,000 tribesmen, all of them heavily armed and prepared to fight and die for him. Bombs exploded on two trains in Baluchistan yesterday, killing two people and wounding eight, a sign that the violence is already spreading beyond Dera Bugti.

A recent siege of the Sui gas field by Baluch tribesmen incensed at the alleged rape, led to gas supplies to the rest of the country being cut off for more than a week. The military has now retaken Sui, about 45 minutes by car from Dera Bugti, and is said to have a considerable force based there.

Many fear that the impoverished tribespeople will now face a brutal military offensive similar to that which Pakistan unleashed on restive tribesmen in the 1970s but updated with lethal modern weaponry.

President Musharraf threatened as much after the Sui siege when he said: "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."

But the Baluch are talking tough too. "An uprising would be more fierce and more strong than it was in 1973," the secretay-general of the Jamhoori Watan Party, Shahid Baloch told The Independent. "The general said the Baluch insurgents would not know what hit them because it's not the 70s. Yes, we know it's not the 70s, but it doesn't go for us only. It goes for both of the parties."

The anger does not stem from a single act of rape. There was a series of bombings last year. The rape was a catalyst, but the anger has more to do with the huge new port Pakistan is constructing at Gwadar on the coast - and the fact that the tribesmen see Baluchistan not as a province of Pakistan, but as their homeland.

They fear the authorities will bring in millions of ethnic outsiders from the overcrowded cities of Punjab province to live and work in Gwadar, changing the demographics of Baluchistan forever.

"After passing through years of bitter experiences we feel that Gwadar will be a death warrant," said Mr Baloch. "Once we are turned into a minority what's left for us? I'd put it this way: the white man started developing the great American plains and removing the red Indians in the name of development Now in the 21st century our Pakistani rulers are trying to apply the same formula".

There is also seething resentment that Baluch towns remain primitive places, not even connected to the gas from their own land, neglected by the Pakistani authorities, while they pump it into Gwadar.

"This is our forefathers' land and we will not give it up and we will resist," said Wadera Kanadeen, another tribal chief. "We are getting nothing. We are getting no help from the government, no schools, no roads, no hospitals, no drinking water. We don't see Pakistan as one country and don't see Musharraf as our president."

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