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Baluch Separatist Icon Reported Dead

Allah Nazar
Allah Nazar

He was trained as a physician to serve humanity in one of the most underdeveloped corners of Pakistan.

Instead Allah Nazar, called Doctor Allah Nazar, became one of the most fearsome guerilla commanders.

After a prison stint nearly a decade ago, the young doctor joined a rebellion and spent years fighting Pakistani forces. Comrades dubbed his separatist violence as the freedom struggle of Baluch nationalists, who say their aim is to turn their homeland in the southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan into an independent country.

Balochistan's home minister, Sarfaraz Bugti, said that "according to unconfirmed reports" Nazar had been killed in a recent operation by security forces.

"I am calling these reports unconfirmed because we haven't seen any evidence that he is alive," Bugti told journalists in the provincial capital, Quetta, on September 8. "Recently, [the paramilitary] Frontier Corps has conducted some operations, and we have not seen any human intelligence or other proof that he is still alive."

Last month, Major General Sher Afgan, the commander of the Frontier Corps in Balochistan, claimed Nazar was killed by Pakistani security forces on July 18. He too, however, said he could not confirm whether Nazar was alive or merely injured.

Nazar's Baluch Liberation Front (BLF), banned in Pakistan for its separatist stance, has likewise refrained from denying or confirming his reported death.

A Twitter account attributed to Nazar, @DrAllahNizar, has been silent since July 16.

If confirmed, Nazar's death will be a significant blow to the Baluch separatist insurgency distinguished by its ethno-nationalist fervor and a diverse support base among Pakistan's estimated 10 million Baluchis. Their resource-rich homeland in southwestern Pakistan has been the scene of five simmering nationalist insurrections aiming for autonomy and control over Balochistan's mineral wealth and Arabian Sea coastline.

The ongoing Baluch insurgency erupted after Pakistani military dictator General Pervez Musharraf's launched a harsh crackdown against Baluch ethno-nationalist factions in 2000. As the military ramped up its clampdown in subsequent years, a large number of Baluch youth fled to the mountains -- a Baluch euphemism for joining the insurgency.

After reportedly suffering severe physical and psychological torture during his 16-month incarceration in 2005 and 2006, Nazar joined Baluch rebels in October 2006 and nearly three years later assumed the leadership of the BLF.

Nazar's ascendency marked the rise of middle-class cadres within the loosely coordinated and sometime bickering Baluch separatist movement. Unlike many Baluch nationalist icons, he didn't inherit tribal leadership, which usually comes with the guaranteed loyalty of tribespeople.

A young Nazar was drawn to Baluch ethno-nationalism after witnessing his father's arrest by Pakistani security forces in the 1970s. His elder brother had joined another Baluch rebellion that saw an estimated 8,000 soldiers and rebels killed. Civilian losses thought to have been much higher.

Loyal to his leftist and Marxist ideological tendencies, Nazar's efforts attracted the backing of some students, peasants, traders, women, and professionals. Under his leadership, the BLF emerged as the new locus of insurgency in southern Balochistan. During the previous Baluch insurrections, this region was largely spared militant violence.

The current insurrection was initiated by militants from the Marri tribe organized under the the Balochistan Liberation Army. After the killing of octogenarian Baluch politician Nawab Akbar Bugti by Pakistani forcers in 2006, his supporters established the Baloch Republican Army.

Activists estimate that thousands of rebels, soldiers, and civilians have died in the simmering violence. Government crackdowns and insurgent attacks have also displaced tens of thousands of civilians.

In 2013, Nazar, a tall mustachioed figure in his 40s, claimed to lead 6,000 BLF fighters he said were "fighting for the restoration of their historic, cultural, [and] geographic boundaries [because] the Baluch homeland has been occupied by force."

But his campaign to target pro-government Baluch figures and the occasional killing of immigrants or laborers from the eastern Punjab province have made such claims contentions.

The soft-spoken guerilla commander, however, defended his actions. "We are not killing civilian migrants but those who work undercover for [Pakistan's] Inter-Services Intelligence and military intelligence. These include Baluch, Pashtuns, Sindhis, and the Punjabis," he told journalist Boriwal Kakar.

Nazar opposed Baluch ethno-nationalist political parties such as the National Party and the Balochistan National Party's participation in Pakistani parliamentary politics. He denied targeting their leaders, but his rejection of a Baluch political struggle within the Pakistani political system was categorical.

"They have recognized the Pakistani constitutional framework, which is being employed to wage a dirty war against the Baluch through human rights violations such as extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances," he said.

Nazar rejected Chinese investments in Balochistan's Port of Gwadar. Beijing has plans to invest billions of dollars into turning this Arabian Sea port into a regional trade hub and trade link to its western Xinjiang region. In addition, Chinese companies are involved in mineral extraction in Balochistan. Since 2004, Baluch separatists have killed several Chinese workers and targeted the supplies of Chinese companies.

But there are now signs the Baluch insurgency is losing steam. Over the years, a harsh Pakistani crackdown marked by widespread disappearances and extra-judicial killings, a lack of meaningful international support, and acute disagreements and squabbling have weakened the Baluch insurrection.

Since the beginning of this year, the Pakistani government has advertised ceremonies showing Baluch separatists handing over their weapons in surrender to the government. In recent months, Islamabad has reached out to some exiled Baluch leaders in Europe who have indicated a willingness to engage with Pakistan.

Balochistan's observers consider these a sign that Nazar is either dead or incapacitated to the extent that he is unable to influence political developments and the direction of the nationalist rebellion.

The death of Nazar, if confirmed, will no doubt weaken the BLF in particular and the Baluch nationalist militancy in general. But it will not change the circumstances that prompted a shy physician to turn into a ferocious guerilla commander.