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Last updateTue, 17 Mar 2015 2pm

Balochistan: The Struggle Pakistan Does Not Want Reported

Abdul Razzaq Baloch worked nights. After dinner, he would start his shift as a proof reader at the Daily Tawar, a newspaper published on a shoe-string from a cramped office in Karachi, Pakistan's commercial capital. At 2 a.m., the 42-year-old would make the short journey home on his new Super Star motorbike.

One night in March, Baloch did not return. His phone was switched off and his bike was missing. His family made enquiries with the police, then hospitals, and finally in the lanes of Lyari, the gritty neighbourhood where they live.

The word on the street was that Baloch had been kidnapped, his relatives said. He had last been seen as he was bundled into a white SUV with a blanket over his head.

Speaking to Reuters two months later, Saeeda Sarbazi, Baloch's outspoken sister, was in no doubt as to the identities of the culprits: Pakistan's intelligence services.

"This case is like a bombshell - nobody we go to wants to touch it," Sarbazi said at the family home in Lyari, where his wife and four children awaited his return. "People are scared that the agencies will harm them."

On August 21, Baloch's body was found dumped amid the brambles overrunning wasteground in Suranji Town, a scrappy neighbourhood on Karachi's northwestern fringe. A piece of paper bearing his name had been stuffed into his pocket. His hands were tied; he had been strangled. Pakistan's military, which has repeatedly denied involvement in extra-judicial killings, did not respond to a request for comment on Baloch's death.

Baloch's associates believe his disappearance and murder was linked to the Daily Tawar's coverage of a separatist guerrilla campaign in Baluchistan, a huge Pakistani province bordering Afghanistan and Iran, where his family has its roots. The Daily Tawar supports independence for the province, and according to several of his friends, Baloch himself belonged to a pro-independence party.

The Baluch rebels, who believe the rest of Pakistan has always treated Baluchistan like a colony, have agitated and fought for their own independent, secular homeland for decades. In response, the security forces have waged a lengthy but little-known counter-insurgency to try to quash them.

In the past three years, the bodies of hundreds of members of pro-independence political parties, student groups and even poets have been discovered on desolate verges or patches of scrub. Baluch activists say the bodies are evidence that the military is pursuing a systematic "kill-and-dump" campaign to crush dissent - a charge the army denies.

Under growing pressure from Pakistan's increasingly assertive judiciary to explain the disappearances, military officers have speculated that a range of armed groups or criminal gangs active in the province may be to blame.

But Baloch's death has hardened a belief among Baluch that the security forces - far from softening their stance - have sharply expanded their crackdown this year in a drive to extinguish the uprising once and for all.

In a new trend, the bodies of the disappeared have begun to turn up beyond Baluchistan's borders in Karachi, a city of 18 million people and the motor of Pakistan's economy.

The discovery of Baloch's remains, alongside those of another man, brought the total number of bodies of missing Baluch that have been found in the city to 18 since the start of this year, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). Although Baloch vanished in Karachi, many of the others had been reported missing hundreds of km away in Baluchistan itself.

Asked to comment on Baloch's disappearance, a security official said he had no specific knowledge of the case but added that the military would have no reason to detain an obscure proof reader.

"Unknown journalist. Unknown newspaper with a very limited or no following at all. Why should we go and pinch him and make him part of the news?" the official said. "It doesn't serve us."

Virtually sealed off to foreigners, Baluchistan is potentially one of Pakistan's most prosperous regions, endowed with copper and gold. Iran's government hopes a planned $1.5bn pipeline project will one day snake across its rocky wastes to export natural gas to Pakistan and India to help Tehran circumvent U.S. sanctions. China wants to import oil via Baluchistan's deepwater port of Gwadar.

But none of that is likely to happen as long as the unrest in Baluchistan continues.

The rebels, as well as the army, stand accused of waging a dirty war. In recent years, the HRCP believes Baluch separatist gunmen have murdered hundreds of civilian "settlers" from Pakistan's eastern Punjab province to try to drive out the community. In turn, Baluch say the Frontier Corps, the main official force in Baluchistan, launches punitive raids to torch homes and round up opponents.

Unfolding in closed-off badlands, the conflict is subject to far less international scrutiny than the army's separate battle against the Pakistani Taliban on the frontier with Afghanistan.

Nonetheless, repeated reports by human rights groups of abuses in Baluchistan have raised awkward questions over the conduct of Pakistan's military, which has received almost $11 billion from Washington since 2001 to finance its anti-Taliban campaigns, according to data compiled by Alan Kronstadt of the Congressional Research Service.

Speaking to Baluch living inside and outside the province over the course of several months, Reuters has been able to gather testimony from witnesses and relatives over what they describe as three apparent cases of "kill-and-dump."

Reuters submitted a dossier of testimony related to the disappearance of Abdul Razzaq Baloch, the journalist, and two other alleged "kill-and-dump" cases within Baluchistan to the army on June 10. The military said it had pursued the query but had not yet been able to obtain any information.

Reuters also wrote to Pakistan's government seeking permission to visit Baluchistan to meet military officers but received no reply. The Interior Ministry did not offer an explanation, but officials have previously said that journalists travelling to Baluchistan may face risks from armed groups.

The lack of access makes collating data on disappearances difficult and there is a risk that some of those reported missing may have gone into hiding.

Taking these caveats into account, one online database of abductions <www.balochmissing.com> run by a group of activists in the United States who track media reports, suggests the pace of disappearances has increased sharply.

The group says 247 Baluch were reported abducted in the first six months of this year, compared with 214 in the whole of 2012, and 206 in 2011.

"Anyone remotely linked to Baluch (separatist) politics is targeted," said Jeeand Baloch, a leader of Baloch Students Organisation (Azad), a pro-independence group. "If they go into hiding, their families are punished."

The allegations come at a sensitive time for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose new government has pledged to rein in abuses as a prelude to seeking negotiations with insurgents to usher the alienated province into the national fold.

Whether he can succeed will be an early test of his authority over Pakistan's powerful military, whose commanders exert far greater influence in Baluchistan than the feeble provincial administration.

- Reuters

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