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After Secret Talks, Exiled Baluch Leader To Return

Outside the front door of the late tribal leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti's home, several Bugti tribesmen stand guard, while others wait for an audience with their chieftain (file photo).
Outside the front door of the late tribal leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti's home, several Bugti tribesmen stand guard, while others wait for an audience with their chieftain (file photo).

Exiled Baluch separatist leader Brahumdagh Bugti once feared being killed by his followers if he ever struck a deal with Pakistan because of its harsh crackdown against those fighting for independence from Islamabad.

Bugti, however, is now seen as poised to return to Pakistan after engaging in secret negotiations with senior government officials.

RFE/RL's Gandhara website has exclusively learned that Bugti is months away from returning to Pakistan. This will mark the end of his nine-year exile following the killing of his grandfather, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, by Pakistani security forces in 2006.

Bugti is one of the Baluch separatist movement's most influential leaders. His possible reconciliation with Islamabad will be a major blow to the movement, which has combined militancy with political activism to seek independence for their resource-rich homeland in Pakistan's southwestern province of Balochistan.

"He has agreed to come [back to Pakistan]," said a source in the inner circles of the Balochistan government. "We have reached an agreement on 90 percent of the issues."

The source, a senior politician within Balochistan's ruling coalition, requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the secret talks between the government and exiled Baluch nationalist leaders.

He says Bugti indicated his willingness to return in a series of meeting with Balochistan's chief minister, Abdul Malik Baloch, in Switzerland this summer.

"There were two or three meetings [in July]. He [Bugti] has asked for respect and an end to all cases against him [as a pre-condition for his return]," the source said.

File photo of Brahumdagh Bugti
File photo of Brahumdagh Bugti

Baloch, the mild-mannered most senior elected official in Balochistan, has been pushing for negotiations with separatist Baluch leaders since assuming office following a coalition deal with other political parties in 2013.

His major aim was to bring back many influential Baluch leaders who fled to various European countries after the onset of the ongoing Baluch insurrection. The rebellion first erupted in 2000 after Pakistan's former military dictator Pervez Musharraf ordered a crackdown against supporters of the late Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri.

The August 2006 killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti added fuel to the fire. Tribal volunteers and urban professionals joined forces in a militant struggle that spanned most Baluch-populated areas of the vast region that borders Iran and Afghanistan and is hemmed in by 1,000 kilometers of the Arabian Sea coast close to the Strait of Hormuz.

The Balochistan government source says Bugti's apparent change of heart was prompted by a realization that the 15-year-old Baluch rebellion is not going anywhere because of Pakistan's harsh crackdown and scarce international support.

"He asked [Malik] Baloch how long we can sacrifice our people," the source said of the conversations between the two leaders. "This is a good realization."

Bugti first fled to neighboring Afghanistan in 2006. Incessant attacks allegedly orchestrated by the Pakistani intelligence service forced him to seek asylum in Switzerland in 2010.

Balochistan: Portraits Of Life On The Brink

From his base in Zurich, he now leads the Baloch Republican Party, which claims to be engaged in a peaceful struggle for Balochistan's liberation from Pakistan. Islamabad, however, accuses him of leading the Baloch Republican Army.

This militant faction is one among several hard-line nationalists groups active in Balochistan. Thousands of civilians, soldiers, and militants have been killed during the past 15 years of unrest in Balochistan. Several hundred thousand Baluch civilians and migrants from Pakistan's eastern Punjab Province have been displaced by the conflict.

Baluch nationalists accuse Islamabad of using horrific tactics such as enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings to crush their movement. In return, Pakistani authorities often accuse militants of playing into the hands of regional rivals India and Afghanistan and engaging in widespread sabotage by taking aim at both civilian and military targets.

The nationalist militants appear to be in disarray since Nawab Marri’s death last year. He commanded tremendous respect among their cadres and leaders, but his death left a vacuum and a succession struggle among his five sons. This year, several separatist factions engaged in armed clashes in Balochistan, and their leaders bickered incessantly on social media platforms.

"The narrative that violent struggle cannot win Baluch rights is starting to gain broader acceptance," the government source said. "The separatists not only fought against the state but eventually turned against each other."

A Switzerland-based spokesman for Bugti did not respond to repeated requests for comment. In an interview in August, however, he gave strong indications of a possible deal with Islamabad.

"We really want to resolve all our problems through political means," he told the BBC. "It will be foolish to say that I don't want to resolve problems through sitting [in negotiations]."

Bugti even talked about the need for confidence-building measures. "You cannot talk while there is a massacre going on," he said. "This is why I want the operation to end. All forces should withdraw -- then a conducive atmosphere can be created for the talks."

A source in Quetta, Balochistan's capital, however, warned of reading too much into the secret meetings between Bugti and Baloch. While requesting anonymity, he offered a different version of the negotiations in which Bugti is not sure about Baloch's power to strike a lasting deal.

"Bugti asked Malik, 'Are you powerful enough to engage in negotiations? Are you authorized by the central government and the military leaders to engage in meaningful negotiations?’" he said of the deliberations between the two leaders.

The source said Bugti has requested some confidence-building measures. These include an end to military operations against Baluch separatists, an end to enforced disappearances, and important administrative changes in his hometown, Dera Bugti.

The government source, however, would not confirm such demands. But he did say Bugti is likely to receive millions of dollars in royalties for gas extracted in the Dera Bugti district. The region has been the main supplier of natural gas to Pakistan since the 1950s.

The Bugtis are one of the largest Baluch tribes. As an appeasement strategy, Islamabad has offered royalties to tribal leaders and menial jobs to tribespeople. Nearly 200,000 Bugtis left their homeland after the 2006 killing of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti. Sources in the region now say at least 50,000 have returned to Dera Bugti to reclaim their jobs with the government-run gas company.

The government source says Pakistan’s powerful military establishment will also rein in Sarfraz Bugti, Balochistan's interior minister who has emerged as a main rival to the exiled Bugti leader.

He claimed Bugti's return will be a major blow to the Baluch separatist faction after the reported death of Allah Nazar Baloch. In September, senior Balochistan officials said the physician-turned-separatist icon died in a military operation this summer. He has not been heard from since July.

Observers say Islamabad is pushing hard to quell the Baluch nationalist rebellion to pave the way for $46 billion in Chinese investments. In April, the two neighbors agreed to go ahead with the nearly 2,500-kilometer China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which will connect Balochistan's Port of Gwadar to China's restive Western Xinjiang region.

A pompous ceremony in Gwadar on November 11 will see a large chunk of coastal land handed over to a Chinese company for more than four decades.