Thousands riot after killing of Baluch chief

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The Independent Online

Thousands of Pakistanis defied a government curfew yesterday, setting fire to shops, banks and cars, in protest against the killing of a 79-year-old warlord.

In one town, protesters set off a bomb, damaging a government building, and at least three demonstrators died. Nawab Akbar Bugti, known as the Tiger of Baluchistan, was leader of an ethnic insurgency that has at times threatened to drag Pakistan into civil war.

He was killed on Saturday when the Pakistani army tracked him down to a cave in the mountains, where he was holed up with between 50 and 80 of his relatives and tribal forces.

The military called in air strikes on the caves and sent in a huge force of commandos on the ground. At least 21 commandos, including six officers, and 37 of Bugti's men, are believed to have been killed in the fighting.

The Pakistani government said that he was killed when the cave collapsed in the exchange of fire. But it appears more likely that the cave was directly hit in air strikes. Most observers believe that the military meant to kill Bugti.

The killing provoked demonstrations throughout the capital of Baluchistan, Quetta, and there were violent protests as far away as Karachi. "The government has pushed Baluchistan into a never-ending war," said Hasil Bizinjo, a senior figure of Baluch Yakjehti, or the Baluch Solidarity Alliance. It was not an unexpected death for a man who headed his own tribal army and had in effect declared war on the Pakistani state.

Only last year he was openly directing ground battles against the Pakistani army from his family home - a mud-walled desert fort.

Bugti was educated at Aitchison College, an elite public school in Lahore modelled on Eton, and then at Oxford. Yet he is said to have killed his first man at the age of 12, and legend has it that he killed as many as 100 men to avenge the death of his son in 1992.

As soon as he finished his Western education, he returned to Baluchistan to live by his ancient tribal codes. It was a life that pitted him constantly against the Pakistani authorities.

Many of the tribesmen of Baluchistan - possibly the majority - do not want to be part of Pakistan. Baluchistan has barely changed since Alexander the Great passed through on his conquests. It is a vast land of desert mountains that lies between Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. The Baluch tribesmen have never accepted that their land belongs to anyone else but themselves.

The British never fully suppressed them, and had to forge a power-sharing deal with Baluchistan's tribal leaders, Bugti's ancestors among them. Modern Pakistan has had a strained relationship with them.

Baluchistan is barren, and life is harsh. But beneath its parched ground lies Pakistan's most valuable mineral resources. The tribesmen accuse the government in distant Islamabad of bleeding their province of these precious resources but putting nothing back.

A massive new port that Pakistan is building at Gwadar, on the coast of Baluchistan, has inflamed feelings further and the tribesmen say thousands of outsiders will move in and erode their culture and loosen their grip on the land.

Bugti, the leader of one of the most powerful tribes in Baluchistan, became the effective leader of the rebel Baluchistan Liberation Army.

He had fought against the government before, in the 1970s, when a Baluch rebellion was suppressed by the military.

But he had also been allied to the government in Islamabad at times over the years, serving briefly as both governor and chief minister of the province.

It is believed his attitudes hardened after his youngest son, Salal, was killed by pro-government tribesmen, and last year the tribesmen openly rebelled against the government again.