Eight soldiers killed in Pakistan’s restive Balochistan Province

Deaths occurred Tuesday in two separate assaults near border with Iran, according to military

A PAKISTAN ARMY vehicle carrying the long-range surface-to-surface Ghauri missile passes a portrait of the nation’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in 1999. (photo credit: REUTERS)

A PAKISTAN ARMY vehicle carrying the long-range surface-to-surface Ghauri missile passes a portrait of the nation’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in 1999.

(photo credit: REUTERS)

Seven Pakistani troops were killed by a roadside bomb and an eighth was shot dead by militants in separate May 19 attacks in the southwestern province of Balochistan near Iran, the Pakistani military says.

“Seven soldiers, including a junior commissioned officer, were killed on Wednesday when their vehicle was targeted with a remote-controlled IED [improvised explosive device] in the… Machh area of Balochistan,” the armed forces said in a statement. “The vehicle was returning from patrol duty. Meanwhile, another soldier lost his life in an exchange of fire with militants near the Mand area of Balochistan.”

The attacks followed a May 8 assault that killed an officer and five troops whose vehicle was struck by a remote-control IED in the Buleda area, nine miles from the border with Iran. They had been searching for routes used by armed separatists in the hilly terrain near the Makran coast.

The Balochistan Liberation Army claimed responsibility for that attack.

The Pakistani army’s chief of staff, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, called his Iranian counterpart, Maj.-Gen. Hussain Bagheri, to discuss border security.

“Bajwa informed the Iranian military chief that Pakistan has started fencing off its border with Iran, and that bilateral cooperation is required to ensure border security and stop terrorists and narcotics traffickers,” a military statement said.

Pakistan’s 560-mile border with Iran runs from the Salih mountains to Gawadar Bay on the Arabian Sea. Balochistan, one of Pakistan’s largest provinces, extends across 44% of the country.

The province is rich in natural gas – the biggest contributor to the local economy – as well as oil, copper and gold. It borders on the Punjab and Sindh, the Khyber Pakhtoon Khwa tribal lands, as well as Afghanistan.

It is also at the center of the $62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor [CPEC] pact, part of Beijing’s massive Belt-and-Road infrastructure project. CPEC is developing the deep-water port of Gawadar, which will be linked to China’s Xinjiang Province.

CPEC projects also cover energy generation, transportation infrastructure and industrial economic zones.

The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and other groups have been fighting for a homeland since at least 2004. The United States declared it a terrorist organization in July 2019, the State Department calling it an “armed separatist group that targets security forces and civilians, mainly in ethnic Baloch areas of Pakistan.”

The group has carried out several attacks in recent years. In May 2019, it struck a luxury hotel in Gawadar where Chinese CPEC overseers and foreign businesspeople stay. In April 2019, Baloch militants blocked the Gawadar coastal highway near Iran and executed 14 members of the security forces who were accompanying CPEC staff in six buses.

In November 2018, it assaulted the Chinese Consulate in Karachi, and in August 2018 it carried out a suicide attack on Chinese engineers in the province itself. In December 2018, Asim Baluch, one of the organizers of the assault on the Karachi consulate, was killed in a suicide attack in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Balach Marri, a separatist who formed the BLA in 2004, was killed by a US missile in Afghanistan in 2007.

National Assembly Deputy Speaker Qasim Khan Suri, a legislator from Balochistan, condemned the latest attacks.

”Unfortunately, the people of Balochistan have witnessed the severe violence of terrorism and sectarian attacks, but our armed forces have remained steadfast in protecting lives and property,” he told The Media Line.

Suri blamed the attacks on a “foreign-funded conspiracy against the country’s sovereignty and the Pakistani-Chinese corridor.”

He added that the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan was “sincerely struggling to bring Balochistan up to par with the rest of the provinces,” saying that “anti-state elements are not happy with the province’s socio-economic development.”

Pakistan has sentenced to death an Indian national for involvement in the province’s unrest. Kulbhushan Yadev was found guilty of terrorism and espionage for Indian intelligence by a military court in April 2017. However, the International Court of Justice stayed his execution the following month at India’s urging, pending a final judgement.

Pakistan claims that Yadev was serving as an Indian navy commander when he was nabbed in 2016. India rejects the allegation and describes him as a “retired naval officer kidnapped by Pakistani officials from the Iranian coastal city of Chahbahar while on a private trip.”

Adeeb Safvi, a Karachi-based defense analyst and retired Pakistan Navy captain, told The Media Line that “the name Balochistan Liberation Army was given to the militant group created by a hostile intelligence agency and supported by anti-state elements in Balochistan,” adding it maintains links with non-state actors in Iran.

“The Indian-Iranian nexus through Commander Kulbhashan Yadev’s network is still active in destabilizing regional security,” he stated, saying also that Yadev had been “placed undercover in the port of Chahbahar, where India is investing in development.”

In recent years, Pakistan’s relations with Iran have been troubled, “but since Imran Khan came to power, some serious efforts were made to remove mistrust and create ties based on mutual respect,” Safvi said.

“Pakistan’s help to create a better understanding with the US has certainly been acknowledged by Iran. However, it has not fully emerged from India’s influence,” he stated.

“Anti-Shia elements in India’s mainstream religious parties created this mistrust,” he explained, adding that these elements “have strong support from the Arabs.”

Khalid Jan Baloch, a Quetta-based security and international relations expert, told The Media Line that the dispute between the military and the Baloch tribespeople intensified in 2004 when Baloch leader Akbar Bugti was killed in a cave.

“Though his killing remains a mystery, his death triggered an ‘insurgency’ in the province’s Baloch tribal belt,” he noted.

When rebel Naila Baloch launched the “Free Balochistan” anti-Pakistan campaign in June 2018 in New Delhi, Indian intelligence agents and parliamentarians attended the event, Khalid Jan Baloch said.

“Anyone could imagine who the ‘men behind these guns are,’” he added.

“Apparently, Baloch separatists believe that China is Pakistan’s partner in looting Balochistan‘s minerals, and they consider CPEC projects a potential threat to their mineral-rich soil. That’s why they target Chinese workers,” he explained.

Iran has its own interests in Balochistan.

“The Iranian leadership is deeply concerned that Pakistan has invited [Iranian rival] Saudi Arabia to participate in CPEC projects, so Iranian intelligence is acting to destabilize security in the area,” he said.

Fayyaz A. Malik, a retired brigadier general who commanded forces in Balochistan, told The Media Line that Pakistani troops are “providing security to 70% of the province and covering a vast hilly area,” noting that Balochistan’s security “has improved since the CPEC started.”

Pakistan’s military, he stated, “has deployed a division of troops under the command of a two-star general to protect CPEC assets, as well as the Chinese [nationals] working on the various sites.”

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