The recent killing of a former physician in a remote corner of southwestern Pakistan's Balochistan Province might not sound like major news, but Manan Baloch was a central figure in efforts to reorganize fragmented separatist factions engaged in a simmering nationalist insurgency.
Pakistani officials said Baloch, 48, and five companions were killed in a January 30 operation by the paramilitary Frontier Crops in Mastung, a small town near Balochistan's capital, Quetta.
Razzaq Sarbazi, a Baluch journalist who covered the insurgency in Balochistan for years, sees Baloch’s death as a major setback in the separatist struggle.
"Manan’s death is bad news for the Baluch nationalist movement," he said. "It is a major test in trying times."
Baloch was the secretary general of the Balochistan Nationalist Movement (BNM). The shadowy separatist faction is outlawed in Pakistan because it advocates independence for resource-rich Balochistan, which is Pakistan's largest province. It borders Afghanistan and Iran and has nearly 1,000 kilometers of shoreline on the Arabian Sea.
Sarbazi says it will be challenging for the BNM to recover from the loss of Baloch because he had reorganized the party after unknown assailants killed its founding leader, Ghulam Muhammad Baloch, and his two key lieutenants, Munir Baloch and Sher Mohammad, in 2009.
Lateef Johar, a former ally, says Baloch's activism was a unifying force. "Manan was one of our best brains. Nobody understood politics like he did. We have lost a repository of knowledge on [Balochistan] politics," Johar said.
While the BNM says it is engaged in a peaceful political struggle, Pakistani officials accuse it of being allied with the violent nationalist guerilla factions who have used ambushes and car bombs to target government forces and are even accused of targeting civilian migrants from other regions of Pakistan.
Thousands of civilians, separatist activists, fighters, and government soldiers have been killed in the unrest in Balochistan that first began in 2004.
A harsh government crackdown, which activists say includes targeted assassinations and enforced disappearances of fighters and activists, has weakened the insurgency. Equally damaging perhaps are internal rifts pitting some exiled separatist figures against field commanders in Balochistan.
Balochistan Interior Minister Sarfaraz Bugti declared Baloch's killing a major success. "After the killing of Manan and Allah Nazar, the leadership of the Balochistan Liberation Front is finished," he told journalists.
In September, Bugti claimed that Allah Nazar, the leader of the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), was killed in a military operation. But the guerilla commander later appeared in a video in November. Bugti, however, insists that Nazar was killed in August.
Sources in Balochistan have confirmed that Baloch was a major backer of Nazar, and his death will not only weaken the BLF but also undermine efforts to mend relations with the rival Baloch Liberation Army.
Observers say Baloch's death will inevitably deepen rifts within the BNM and possibly trigger a power struggle within the already fractious movement at a time when the military campaign has escalated.
Columnist Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur has been monitoring Baluch nationalist rebellions since the 1970s. He says that, to survive, the BNM has to find a replacement for Baloch soon.
"Baluch [separatist] survival depends on their being able to cope with all overwhelming odds and disasters that the Pakistani establishment throws at them," he said.
Kiyya Baloch is a freelance journalist who reports the insurgency, militancy and sectarian violence in Balochistan.