KARACHI, PAKISTAN // Pakistani security forces are struggling to contain Taliban militancy but they are also facing a burgeoning nationalist insurgency in the south-western province of Baluchistan.
Nawab Khair Baksh Marri, the 81-year-old head of the Marri tribe, which is leading the guerrilla campaign against the state, predicted the violence would deteriorate in the near future. "The intensity of our struggle will become worse. I see an uprising and I hope that I can serve and be part of it, but the repression will be worse," Mr Marri said in an interview in Karachi last week. "Some people say I am being subjective, but I see it increasing."
Mr Marri spoke just days before popular unrest in Baluchistan once again broke out across the province after the mutilated bodies of three nationalist leaders, who were believed to have been killed by military intelligence officials, were dumped in a dry riverbed. The politicians were the head of the Baluchistan National Party (BNP), Ghulam Mohammad Baloch, his deputy Lala Munir Baloch and Sher Mohammad, the deputy secretary general of the Baluchistan Republican Party.
They were picked up at gunpoint by intelligence agency forces from the office of a politician who was also their lawyer, Kachkol Ali. "More than a dozen armed men in civilian clothes barged into my office, destroyed the furniture, picked up my clients, Ghulam Mohammed Baloch, Sher Mohammed Baloch and Lala Munir, at gunpoint and whisked them away. They were dumped in four-wheel vehicles accompanied by Frontier Corps mobiles in a convoy and sped away," said Mr Ali.
"Since their kidnapping, I have been struggling for their recovery. Now we have three mutilated bodies of some of our dear leaders," he said. Their bodies were found on Wednesday. Protesters set fire to two private banks, a car and a government building in the town of Turbat after regional parties demanded a strike in the province. A bomb planted on a motorbike also went off near a military convoy in Turbat wounding three civilians and one policeman.
The United Nations expressed "serious concern" over the killings. The US said that Ghulam Mohammed Baloch played an important role in securing the release of American UN official John Solecki, two months after he was abducted in the Baluchistan capital, Quetta. Mr Solecki, who was purportedly held by the little-known Baluchistan Liberation United Front, was released last Saturday. A UN statement said the three slain Baluch leaders were involved with a committee set up by the provincial government to investigate disappearances.
A low-intensity conflict with secular Baluch nationalists, which has crackled and flared for decades, reignited in 2000 when the former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, launched a military operation in an attempt to extend his writ in the sparsely populated, poor, but mineral-rich province. Small hopes for peace were raised last in Feb 2008 with the election of a new government led by the Pakistan's People's Party (PPP) of Benazir Bhutto, an assassinated former prime minister. President Asif Zardari, Bhutto's widower, apologised for the way Baluchs have been treated and promised to halt the army's campaign in Baluchistan, free around 4,000 "disappeared" Baluchs and discuss demands for greater provincial autonomy.
Mr Zardari and Baluch groups declared a ceasefire last year but the insurgency resumed when the government failed to follow up the truce with meaningful talks. The government said it had "traced" some 200 missing persons, but it remains unclear if any were released to secure Mr Solecki's freedom. An Amnesty International report said the government had not done enough to find the missing people. The PPP's chief minister of Baluchistan, another tribal chieftain, Nawab Aslam Raisani, had asked for an end to "meddling" by military intelligence.
But that habit has proved too hard to kick. On July 15 last year Nauroz Khan, a 19-year-old member of Baluchistan's former ruling family, was shot dead in the Kalat district. His father, Musa Khan, said his son had been shouting anti-Pakistan slogans at a rally. "Nothing has changed since Musharraf has gone," he said. "We know the power is in army headquarters." The fragile peace process had not been helped by the intransigence of some of the Baluchi tribal leaders.
The Baluch Liberation Army, a shadowy terrorist group, said by the army to be financed by India, had refused to negotiate. It has murdered political opponents, policemen, journalists and Punjabis. Mr Marri dismissed the government's efforts as "lies and promises". One of his sons, who led fighters in the hills, was killed last year by Pakistani forces. Another was arrested on terrorism charges in London, part of a secretive deal in which the United Kingdom hoped to win the extradition of a terrorist suspect, Rashid Rauf.
He was acquitted of all charges last month after the PPP withdrew the government's support for the case that had been instigated by Mr Musharraf. But Mr Marri has not been appeased and said pro-independence sentiment has strengthened in the province. "We want independence and they talk about development. There is a large gap between us and the government," he said. He said the Baluchs want to hold talks with the government only if the issue of independence is on the agenda.
When asked if greater autonomy would be acceptable, he said: "In our demand for independence there are no half measures but there could be some give-and-take in negotiations." But anger in Baluchistan is once again on the rise. The president of the BNP, Sardar Akthar Jan Mengal, said: "They have pushed us against the wall. "For more than 60 years we have been gifted with the bodies of our guides and leaders.
"They are selecting, targeting and eliminating the best of Baluch society." Mr Mengal, who has been undergoing hospital treatment in Abu Dhabi for ailments developed during his detention for almost two years during Mr Musharraf's regime, added: "The state has now closed all the doors for us to be part of it. "It has proved that no Baluch is safe in this country, especially the cream of our society."