Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 August 2019

Iran and Pakistan form joint border 'reaction force' in response to separatist attacks

Balochs on both sides of the frontier suffer in cross-border attacks

People survey the scene of a bomb blast in Quetta, Pakistan, on April 12, 2019. EPA
People survey the scene of a bomb blast in Quetta, Pakistan, on April 12, 2019. EPA

Iran and Pakistan will form a joint border "reaction force" in response to attacks by Baloch separatist groups on their frontier, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Monday after meeting visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The border skirts the volatile southeastern Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan which has been the scene of frequent attacks on Iran's security forces.

Mr Khan's visit to Iran, the first since he took office last year, comes after gunmen who Islamabad says were based in Iran killed 14 members of Pakistan's security forces last week in its own Balochistan province.

But on both sides of the border, civilians say they are paying the price in clashes between militants and security forces.

In Pakistan's Balochistan province, Nasir Baloch says he and his family had a narrow escape when a rocket fired from Iran landed near their home in November 2013. Authorities told him he could not claim compensation because the attack was launched from inside Iran, about 80 kilometres from the border.

Mr Baloch is one of thousands of residents caught in a war between militants and the state on both sides Pakistan-Iran border. Some have even abandoned their villages, unable to cope with the stress of living under the constant threat of attacks.

Balochistan in Pakistan and Iran's Sistan-Baluchistan province across the border, along with parts of southern Afghanistan, were once an autonomous Sunni-majority state before it was divided by the British in 1871 along the Goldsmid Line. The provinces on both sides of the border suffer from a lack of investment and development, and state discrimination against the local Baloch populations.

Militant groups in Balochistan are seeking independence and launch frequent attacks against security forces as well as, more recently, China-linked targets as Beijing develops projects in the province under its Belt and Road initiative. The Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) and The Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) are the two main groups fighting for independence in Pakistan.

It was these two groups who were responsible for the April 18 slayings of 14 military personnel, who were killed after being dragged from buses in Buzi Top, near the town of Ormara, home to a Pakistani naval base on the southern Arabian Coast.

Occurring on the eve of Mr Khan's visit to Tehran, the attack ensured the issue of militant separatists operating on either side of the border were foremost on the agenda of talks.

Both countries accuse each other of supporting and harbouring the militants.

In Iran, Baloch militant groups such as Jaish ul-Adl, or Army of Justice, are fighting for Sunni rights. A suicide attack in February killed 27 members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

“Iran gives shelter to the Baloch separatist groups," a high-ranking Pakistan security official in Balochistan told The National. "Those militant groups are tasked to target anti-Iranian groups. They also target Pakistani forces.”

Iran often fires rockets, mortars and missiles into Balochistan, while accusing Pakistan of harbouring and supporting the militants.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani called on the Pakistani Prime Minister to take "decisive action" against the militant group, Jaish ul-Adl, which was behind the suicide attack. On March 9, Mr Rouhani said Iranian forces were “ready to give a decisive answer to the terrorists in coordination with Islamabad”.

Iran not only blames the Inter-Services Intelligence branch of the Pakistani military for supporting the militants but also accuses Saudi Arabia and the US of supporting these shadowy militant groups.

Retaliatory attacks by Iran against suspected militants have frequently ended up harming civilians. Last November, two people in Panjgoor district were killed by Iranian forces firing across the border.

Some villages near the border have been nearly abandoned, as whenever the militants attack Iranian forces, Iran fires rockets and mortars back across the border at villages.

“We could not sleep, work and live there because of mortars and rockets fired into our villages, so we left our homes for peace,” said a former resident of Garbun, in Kech district, who moved to Turbat, the district capital.

He told The National that elders from the area met Iranian officials in 2014 to ask for the attacks to stop, but they were told that militants from this border area were carrying out attacks in Iran. “We informed the Iranian officials that we had nothing to do with those attackers,” said the villager, who asked not to be identified, “but they did not listen to us, so I left my home five years ago. But Iran to this day attacks these areas.”

The attacks also affect livelihoods in a province where 71 per cent of the population live below the poverty line, according to the UN Development Programme. Deprived of economic opportunities, many of those who live close to the border resort to smuggling fuel and household goods into Iran.

“A big attack on Iranian forces means Iran stations soldiers on the road through mountains that we use for smuggling petrol and diesel,” said Hussain Baksh, a petrol smuggler. “Of course it hurts us financially, as from each trip I earn about $300.”

The same applies along the border in Sistan-Baluchistan, which is home to two million ethnic Baloch.

The Baloch in Iran face discrimination in access to education, business and government jobs. “Government jobs are awarded to Shiites,” a local Baloch in Iran tells the National by telephone. “We don’t get contracts and government opportunities. The Baloch are treated as anti-Iran.”

Iranian security forces killed about 40 Baloch fuel smugglers in the province last year, according to local NGO Balochistan Human Rights Group (BHRG). Sistan-Baluchistan executed 29 ethnic Baloch from a total of 270 people subject to capital punishment last year, the report says.

The real tally of Balochs killed in the state may be even higher said Masoud Raeisi, a representative of BHRG. “There are also secret executions in Iran which go unreported.”

While cross boundary attacks have harmed locals in both Iran and Pakistan, the border also offers the potential to benefit both countries.

“Rather than fighting one another through militants or proxy groups, Pakistan and Iran should invest in trade and people,” Akram Dashti, a Pakistani senator from Balochistan told The National. “Both countries should open borders for trade.”

Updated: April 24, 2019 02:46 PM