The killing of 14 people in a remote corner of Pakistan’s restive southwestern Balochistan Province shows that the decades-long separatist insurgency in the region is losing steam.
Local journalists say the April 18 attack, claimed by a previously unknown militant coalition, indicates that while years of a government crackdown, leadership disagreements, and fatigue have diluted nationalist militant groups fighting against Pakistan, the insurgents are still not ready to abandon violence.
“This attack took place at a time when Islamabad seems content with defeating the Baluch nationalist insurgents,” Kiyya Baloch, a journalist from Balochistan’s Makran region, told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website.
He says the attack, claimed by Baloch Rajji Ajoi Sangar or the Baloch People Liberation Coalition, is a sign that two of the largest insurgent organizations, the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) and the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF), are now united after publicly disagreeing for years.
In an April 18 statement sent to journalists, the coalition claimed that the attack only targeted military personnel among bus passengers near the town of Ormara along Balochistan’s southern Arabian Sea coast.
"Those who were targeted carried cards of the Pakistan Navy and Coast Guards, and they were only killed after they were identified," the group's spokesman, Baluch Khan, was quoted as saying in the statement.
Ormara, home to a Pakistani naval base, is part of the Gwadar district. The region’s administrative headquarters and main town, also called Gwadar, is the scene of major Chinese investments. It is slated to be the lynchpin of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which aims to link the western Chinese region of Xinjiang with the Arabian Sea through $62 billion worth of investments in energy and infrastructure projects across Pakistan.
“This attack is a blow to the claims that the government has secured Gwadar district,” Baloch noted.
In recent years, Pakistani officials have claimed that many members of the BLA, BLF, and other separatist organizations have surrendered while their leadership remains in hiding or in exile.
Prime Minister Imran Khan called the April 18 attack “an act of terror” and ordered authorities "to make every possible effort to identify and to bring the perpetrators of the barbaric act to justice."
Ziaullah Langove, Balochistan’s home minister, said the victims were found with their hands and legs bound close to Ormara, which is midway on a coastal highway linking the southern seaport city of Karachi and Gwadar.
"Terrorists offloaded 14 persons from different buses after checking their national identity cards,” Langove said. “They took them and killed them.”
Akhtar Mengal, leader of the ethno-nationalist Balochistan National Party, also condemned the killings. “Deeply appalled by the scale and intensity of the devastation that took place in Ormara today,” he wrote on Twitter. “Killing innocent people so brutally will never help achieve anything.”
The comments were a sharp rebuke to separatist militants who oppose participating in elections and have targeted pro-government Baluch politicians as well as members of Pakistan’s majority ethnic group, the Punjabis.
Most members of the Pakistani security forces are Punjabi. A large Punjabi community, locally called settlers, once formed a sizeable part of the professional classes in many of Balochistan’s towns and cities.
But the community became a major target of separatists during the peak years of the insurgency after 2006, which prompted tens of thousands of Punjabis to leave the province.
The ongoing low-intensity Baluch separatist insurgency emerged in 2000 following the arrest of Khair Baksh Marri, a Marxist Baluch leader who championed separatism.
Various Baluch nationalist factions and leaders have sought autonomy and a fair share in the region’s rich hydrocarbon, mineral, and coastal resources since Pakistan’s independence in 1947. Some Baluch factions have repeatedly resorted to an armed struggle in the sparsely populated region that comprises more than 40 percent of Pakistan’s nearly 800,000-square-kilometer territory.
Baluch are the largest ethnic groups in Balochistan’s more than 12 million population. The province also has a large Pashtun population concentrated in its northern districts along the border with Afghanistan.
Baloch says that while the separatist insurgency peaked after the killing of senior Baluch nationalist leader Akbar Bugti in 2006, its strength and intensity have gradually declined since 2013. Elections that year resulted in a coalition provincial administration, and Baluch and Pashtun ethno-nationalist political parties headed the region’s civilian administration for the next four years.
“The insurgent movement has substantially weakened in Makran region,” Baloch noted, referring to Balochistan’s large coastal region that is considered a BLF stronghold. The organization gained prominence after the BLA, dominated by members of the large Marri Baluch tribe, weakened in northeastern and central Balochistan following the 2007 killing of its erstwhile leader, Balach Marri.
Independent observers and Baluch nationalists say an extensive crackdown by Pakistani security forces relying on anti-nationalist militias, enforced disappearances, and other harsh tactics has weakened the insurgency.
In December, Aslam Baloch, the most senior BLA field commander, was killed in a suicide attack in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. In November, BLA had claimed responsibility for a botched attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi that killed four people.
Disagreements that sometime escalated into armed clashes among the insurgent groups and attacks on pro-government leaders and politicians willing to participate in elections also contributed to diminishing the insurgents’ appeal.
“Life has largely returned to normal in the region,” Baloch said of Makran. “Most attacks now occur in the remote regions.”