SOUTH ASIA INTELLIGENCE REVIEW
A Tragedy Unfolds
On December 17, 2005, the Pakistani Army and paramilitary launched an operation against the Baloch insurgents in the Kohlu, Dera Bugti, Noshki and Makran Districts, as well as other parts of the Balochistan province. The subsequent and escalating violence, including the indiscriminate bombing and strafing of civilian populations, and repeated and widespread clashes with suspected Baloch insurgents and dissenting tribesmen has led many to describe this as the 'fourth rebellion' in the Province since the creation of Pakistan.
Senator Sanaullah Baloch of the Balochistan National Party - Mengal group (BNA-M) told South Asia Intelligence Review on January 12 that the Pakistan Army and Air Force 'carpet-bombing' from December 18, 2005, had killed over 300 people, mostly women and children. Sources from the Marri and Bugti tribes indicate that intensive bombing and shelling by Helicopter Gunships and heavy artillery are currently continuing in Balochistan. The operations, which initially targeted the Marri tribe in Kohlu District, are now reported to have spread across other parts of the province.
Baloch leaders claim that the 50,000 regular Army troops are currently deployed in Balochistan, in addition to 37,000 personnel of the para-military Frontier Corps (FC). Sources confirm that there has been a significant enhancement of the military presence in the province over the past months, with an addition of at least four thousand FC personnel; another 2,000 Pakistan Rangers redeployed from Sindh and Punjab; and the 29th Infantry Brigade that has been brought in from Zhob to Dera Bugti. Baloch sources claim that the weaponry being used includes helicopter gunships, fighter jets, heavy artillery and missiles. Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, chief of the Bugti tribe, told Praveen Swami of Frontline in an exclusive interview that jet aircraft have been strafing and bombing the heights on either side of the Sui and Loti valleys. According to Sanaullah Baloch, moreover, "some dirt bombs and gases have also been used in first phase of bombing." These claims are yet to be corroborated by any independent media or source, since the Press and various independent agencies are being rigorously kept out of Balochistan by the military. Baloch sources, nevertheless, have put up a large number of photographs, lists and details suggesting that the overwhelming majority (Nawab Bugti claims 85 per cent) of those killed have been women and children, and that most of the military actions have targeted civilian settlements, rather than identifiable insurgent groups.
While the intensity of Islamabad's response may have come as a surprise to many outside the region, these are entirely in line with President Pervez Musharraf's earlier proclamations on a 'solution' to the 'Baloch problem'. In early 2005, he had warned the rebels, "Don't push us… It is not the '70s. We will not climb mountains behind them, they will not even know what and from where something has come and hit them." The Baloch leadership, 12 months later, is only shocked at the immediate scale of devastation, but not by the means employed, or the intent of the President.
The province, it merits repetition, is of critical importance to Pakistan, both strategically and otherwise. There are four major cantonments, 59 'mini cantonments', six missile testing ranges and three nuclear testing sites in Balochistan. Pakistan Air Force has six bases and the Navy another three in the troubled province, which is dotted with over 600 military check posts. Baloch nationalists describe the entire province as a 'mega-cantonment'.
Available information suggests that Kohlu and Dera Bugti Districts are currently completely surrounded by troops. Further, of Balochistan's 28 Districts, the 16 most strategic and important in terms of natural resources are now directly affected by the insurgency, and constitute a security problem for the military regime. Contrary to General Musharraf's position that only three of the 78 tribal chiefs in the province were "troublemakers", the truth is that insurgent attacks have left no part of the province unaffected. There has also been a continuous series of bomb and rocket attacks on gas pipelines, railway tracks, power transmission lines, bridges, and communications infrastructure, as well as on military establishments and governmental facilities and enterprises over the past 12 months, and on December 27, 2005, Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao confirmed that there had been "an increase in the momentum of militancy recently".
Official data indicated that 187 bomb blasts, 275 rocket attacks, eight attacks on gas pipelines, 36 attacks on electricity transmission lines and 19 explosions on railway lines occurred in the year 2005. According to open source information monitored by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, at least 182 civilians and 26 security force personnel died in the Province during 2005. However, given Islamabad's understated accounts, the suppression of the Press and erratic reportage from this poorly covered region, the actual numbers could be much higher.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) team led by Asma Jahangir, after its visit to Dera Bugti, noted that, "Due to the ongoing armed sorties, around 85 percent of the local population has already left Sui while Nawab Akbar Bugti has also vacated his residence in the town. Sui has in fact been shut off from the outside world since December 17th." Incidentally, on January 8, 2006, the HRCP team came under attack when two unidentified men fired at their vehicles in Sui. The Daily Times noted that the HRCP team was allegedly shot at by "security personnel" to prevent a neutral observer from finding out what was actually going on. The HRCP delegation was also "amazed to note" that the "police have not registered the FIR [First Information Report] of the firing incident on the HRCP vehicle that took place Sunday. Three charges of Kalashnikov fire were unleashed during the attack. It is also intriguing that the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) has claimed responsibility, given that the outfit has no quarrel with HRCP."
In addition to the widely dispersed attacks on vital state installations and SFs, two emerging patterns of insurgent attack are of great significance. The first of these is what Federal Interior Minister Sherpao called a deliberate attempt to target "settlers" in Balochistan, some of whom he claimed had been attacked and killed on December 26, 2005. The second is an attack on three launches of the Pakistan Navy at the Fish Harbour in Gwadar on January 7.
Amidst all this violence, Islamabad continued to issue denials about any military operation in the troubled province. Thus Federal Minister for Defence, Rao Sikandar Iqbal, stated at Okara, on January 9, 2006, that no military operation was being launched in Balochistan. Strikingly, the Federal Information Minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, noted at Islamabad that the "operation has been wound up in Balochistan", but that SFs would remain in the province and strictly deal with those found involved in breaches of the law. These denials and reluctant admissions have been central to the military regime's attempts at a complete clampdown on information from the province. Islamabad has been actively blocking information in its efforts to cover up the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force and the lack of accountability of security agencies operating in Balochistan. Nevertheless, news has been gradually trickling in and the military regime, consequently, struggling to contain the fallout of the world noticing the Baloch insurgency, and Musharraf himself reacted with ferocity when India's External Affairs Ministry urged restraint in the use of force in Balochistan, declaring, "We know who is financing and supplying weapons". Indeed, the military regime and its political proxies have repeatedly sought to lay the blame on the 'hidden hand' and 'external actors' - with India and the US recurring in the statements of the radical Islamist parties - an aspect which very few are willing to accept. Dismissing allegations of external support, Nawab Bugti declared, "President Musharraf is using his favourite weapon - lies. His Objective is to defame the legitimate demands of the people of Balochistan." Bugti stated, further, "What is the need for us to take anything from anyone? The weapons we are now using flowed into this region when the United States financed the jihad in Afghanistan. It was the Inter-Services Intelligence which distributed them to Afghanistan, Iran, Jammu and Kashmir - and to us in Balochistan." As an editorial in Pakistan's Daily Times rightly noted, "While an exaggerated sense of external threat will not do Pakistan any good, what is happening internally is quite heart-breaking".
Further, the military regime has sought to justify the ongoing action in Balochistan as a reaction to the December 14, 2005, attack on General Musharraf in Kohlu. But this has only deepened the hatred the ordinary Baloch has for Islamabad. As Nawab Bugti recalled, the President had also been attacked in Rawalpindi and Karachi earlier, but no action was taken against the people of these cities.
With the threat of the Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM) to withdraw from the Cabinet having evaporated, at least for now, the small measure of caution that existed within the Musharraf regime has also disappeared. While an MQM pullout would not have affected the Federal Government, the coalition Government in Sindh would have collapsed, and the sectarian violence that long dominated the province may have revived. With Sindh and Balochistan destabilized, an opportunistic escalation in NWFP would be a distinct possibility, and the whole situation in Pakistan could explode beyond the current 'manageable' levels. Such an eventuality has temporarily been averted, with Musharraf buying off the MQM with assurances on the Kalabagh Dam, freeing the military regime to focus its might on repression in Balochistan.
But the Baloch insurgency is an indication of the larger malaise that afflicts Pakistan, a crisis which Opposition leader Raza Rabbani aptly called "a crisis of the federation". The potential for destabilisation in the Sindh and Punjab provinces may currently have been contained, but Musharraf's growing isolation, both within and outside Pakistan, can only compound the multitude of problems faced by his regime, especially as the regime gets increasingly bogged down in the Balochistan quagmire.
Slippery Slope to War
The ceasefire still holds, at least on paper. Neither the Government nor the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has yet given the 14-day notice prior to an announcement of withdrawal from the peace process. Yet some 135 people - troops and civilians - have been killed since Mahinda Rajapakse, backed by Sinhala nationalists, assumed duties as the fifth Executive President of Sri Lanka on November 17, 2005. The low-intensity violence, which began to surface in the aftermath of a split in the LTTE in April 2004 against the backdrop of a truce between the Sri Lankan security forces and the rebels, shows signs of picking up and this may be a harbinger of the country's slide back to war. Every major attack on the security forces after November 17 has had the potential to trigger the 'Eelam War IV'. The January 7, 2006, attack on the Sri Lanka Navy's Fast Attack Craft in Trincomalee, for instance, was reminiscent of the 1995 attack on a Sri Lankan naval ship - which marked the beginning of 'Eelam War III'.
The Sri Lankan armed forces have been under orders from the top to exercise utmost restraint in the face of LTTE provocations, although the troops have been implicated in the killing of five students on the Trincomalee beach, and the rape of a Tamil girl when some sailors went berserk this week in a Mannar village in response to a deadly attack on a Navy convoy, in which nine naval personnel were killed.
The spate of violence, especially in the North, points to a test of wills. On the one hand, the LTTE, apparently seeking to trigger a full-scale war, has repeatedly provoked the Security Forces (SFs) and, on the other, the Government has restrained its Forces from hitting back. The Government strategy of restraint has helped the Rajapakse Administration in winning international sympathy, after it had earlier earned the ire of the world community for not offering a 'viable solution' to the ethnic conflict and for veering away from a federal solution. The United States and Australia have now come out strongly against the LTTE for the violence perpetrated on the SFs.
The LTTE, however, does not appear to be ruffled by growing international opinion against it. The assassination of former Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, on August 13, 2005, demonstrated its supreme indifference to external sympathy or pressure. It is clear that the LTTE has now resumed its armed struggle, though it claims not to have withdrawn from the ceasefire agreement, and this points to a new strategy aimed at increasing its bargaining power. The pressure on the LTTE to resume peace talks is mounting. But the rebels apparently feel that they can get what they want only if they jack up the stakes.
The LTTE's strategy appears to be targeted at regaining Jaffna. It has chosen the northern capital because, unlike in the East where its power has been somewhat weakened after the Karuna rebellion in April 2004, it enjoys significant public support in Jaffna. Military analysts claim that the LTTE has raised a 'People's Force' (Makkal Padai) consisting largely of civilians to face any eventuality in its push for Jaffna. Civilians in Jaffna and other areas in the north have been brought to LTTE camps during the four years of the ceasefire and have been given basic training in how to handle an AK-47 and grenades, according to LTTE watchers. It is this Makkal Padai which urged the people in the North, on behalf of the LTTE, to boycott the November 17 elections. It also issued warnings to the Armed Forces in Jaffna, to leave the Northern city or 'soon face death'. The LTTE proxy has also claimed responsibility for some of the attacks against the SFs in the North and elsewhere.
The LTTE also feels that regaining Jaffna is now militarily viable. In the wake of its capture of military bases at Elephant Pass, one of the gateways to the northern peninsula, in 2000, the LTTE laid a siege on Jaffna and was on the verge of recapturing it. It was apparently an Indian warning that forced the LTTE to change its strategy and leave the northern capital. Today, however, the LTTE feels the political climate in Tamil Nadu is once again favourable to it, as this southern Indian State faces Assembly elections this year, with the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) leader Vaiko espousing the LTTE cause openly and Chief Minister Jayalalitha Jayaram refusing to meet the visiting Sri Lankan President in December 2005. Kindling anti-Sinhala sentiments, newspapers in Tamil Nadu gave wide coverage to the humiliation faced by Tamils when, during a recent police raid in Colombo, hundreds of Tamils, including women in night dress, were taken to police stations, photographed and questioned.
The theory that the recapture of Jaffna will enhance the LTTE's bargaining power apparently stems from its belief that four years of ceasefire have not brought any significant political gains to the Tamil people. It is a fact that the ceasefire agreement had made life relatively easy for the Tamil people in the north and the east till November 17, 2005, and freed themselves from the fear of violence, with the major highway connecting the north and the south opening up and prices of commodities declining. But the peace talks held in Thailand and elsewhere have not taken the Tamil people anywhere closer to autonomy or the LTTE's objective of 'internal self-determination'.
The peace talks had come to a standstill January 2004, when the then Ranil Wickremesinghe Government tried to water down the LTTE's proposals for an interim self-governing authority (ISGA). Just when the two sides were about to agree on a working document, the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga, under pressure from her party members and hardline parties such as the Marxists-turned-ultra nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), dissolved Parliament and called for fresh elections, claiming that the Wickremesinghe Administration was granting too many concessions to the LTTE and endangering national security.
The elections in April 2004 brought the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and its electoral ally JVP back to power, but the Kumaratunga Government failed miserably in reviving the stalled peace process, largely because of opposition from nationalist elements. It was amidst much opposition and a risk of losing its majority in Parliament that the Kumaratunga Government signed the Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS), a Tsunami aid sharing mechanism, with the LTTE. It was expected that the P-TOMS agreement would revive the peace process, but the Supreme Court, on a petition filed by the ultra-nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya, a party of Buddhist monks, ruled that some clauses in the agreement were ultra vires the Constitution. The Tamils in the north and the east interpreted these developments as the unwillingness of the majority Sinhalese to grant political concessions that would lead to autonomy in the Tamil regions. Adding to this frustration was the political rhetoric of the Rajapakse Government, which came to power on a platform that offered no P-TOMs, no federalism and no recognition for the Tamil homeland concept. This injected new life into the Tamil struggle and made many Tamils to see reason in LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran's heroes' day speech on November 27, 2005, which warned that the struggle for a Tamil homeland would be intensified over the coming year. Issuing a veiled threat in his heroes' day speech, Prabhakaran declared, "The ruling elites of southern Sri Lanka will never recognize our people's right to self-determination. The Tamil right to self-determination will never find space in the entrenched majoritarian Constitution and in the political system built on that constitutional structure."
Other disturbing reports from the North add fuel to the fire. Besides the horrendous killing of five students on the Trincomalee beach, the SFs and "other armed groups" (this is how the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission has described groups thought to be operating hand-in-glove with some elements in the Armed Forces) are being blamed for killings, rape and disappearances. The Karuna faction, in the meantime, operates freely in the Government-controlled areas of the east, though the Government claims it has nothing to do with Karuna. They kill and are killed, as intra-LTTE clashes continue.
Traders returning from Jaffna say the mood in the northern capital is one of preparation for a war, although most of the Tamil people remain opposed to war. If the November 17 election had been free of LTTE threats, it is thought that a majority of the Tamils in the north and the east would have ensured Ranil Wickremesinghe's victory in the expectation that he would have resumed the peace talks and offered a federal solution. But Prabhakaran and his advisors thought otherwise, believing that they could get what they want only if they increased their bargaining power.
LTTE suspects arrested during cordon-and-search operations in Colombo are reported to have confessed that the rebels would launch an all-out war some time after the Thai Pongal Hindu festival, which fell on January 14, 2006. But analysts believe that the shape of things to come will, in fact, depend on the outcome of the visit of Norwegian International Development Minister and former special envoy, Erik Solheim, to Sri Lanka on January 23.
The Rajapakse Government initially tried to sideline Norway, but ate humble pie and invited Oslo to continue as facilitator when India refused to play a direct role in the Sri Lankan peace process or to be the fifth member of the donor co-chairs. The Government then tried to keep Solheim out of the process alleging that he was not an honest broker, but little realizing that, in international politics, less powerful and economically weak states have little say. Whether the Government likes Solheim or not, it now pins its hope on his visit to avert a full-scale war, which neither side would be able to win.
Another Catch-22 situation confronts the Government. The LTTE insists that the next round of talks should be held in Norway. But the Government, under pressure from its hardline coalition partners, insists that the talks should be held in an Asian venue. If Rajapakse agrees to Oslo as a venue, he may lose his political allies and even his strength in Parliament. If he does not agree, he will play into the hands of the LTTE whose concentration now appears to be more on war preparations than on peace talks. The door for peace is not, at this point, totally closed, but time is rapidly running out. Rajapakse must decide - and decide fast.
Weekly Fatalities: Major Conflicts in South Asia
January 9-15, 2006
Provisional data compiled from English language media sources.
Myanmar launches operations against NSCN-K: The Myanmar Army has begun fresh operations against the National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Khaplang (NSCN-K) in co-ordination with the Indian Army, according to Assam Tribune. Helicopter gun-ships have reportedly been used in operations that have led to serious casualties among the militants, official sources said. The Myanmar Army’s operation came after a gap of less then four months, when it had targeted camps in areas adjoining the Tirap and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh in India’s Northeast. Sources in the Ministry of Defence at Delhi, while confirming reports, said that the operation began about a week ago and the armies of the two countries were working in close co-ordination. According to reports, the Myanmar Army has pressed into service helicopter gun-ships to attack the camps located in dense jungles. Sources said that according to last reports, at least 40-50 militants have been killed in the operations. These figures, however, are yet to be officially confirmed.The Assam Tribune, January 15, 2006.
Naxalite violence increased by 4 per cent in 2005, says Union Home Secretary: Following the 19th meeting of the Coordination Committee on Naxalite violence on January 13, 2006, at New Delhi, Union Home Secretary V.K. Duggal disclosed that "the level of incidents has gone up by four per cent in 2005. I don’t want to go into the reasons but the challenge in 2006 will be to contain it with an integrated approach." The measures decided at the meeting included creation of dedicated intelligence units in seven of the worst affected States, raising 10 more police battalions, inducting an additional 45 armoured vehicles and strengthening police stations. "As a first step to strengthen our fight against the armed rebels, there will be a separate Maoist division in the Home Ministry that will coordinate activities," Duggal said. The Home Secretary added that a State like Haryana cannot be complacent from being affected by the Naxalites as it was one of the States, including Uttaranchal, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala, where Naxalites were trying to mark their presence. Deccan Chronicle, January 14, 2006.
18 people killed in alleged US missile strikes in NWFP: At least 18 people, mostly women and children, were killed and several others injured as suspected US planes fired missiles targeting three houses, some 40 kilometers inside the Pakistani territory in Bajaur Agency of North West Frontier Province (NWFP) in the early hours of January 13, 2006. Eyewitnesses told The News from Mamund, the targeted area, that four to five planes took part in the bombing of Damdola village, destroying houses of Bacha Khan, Bashir and Gul Zaman. According to locals, eight children and four women are among the dead. Haroon Rashid, Member of the National Assembly from Bajaur, disclosed that American planes started targeting Damdola at about 3:00 am. "Damdola is adjacent to my village and we saw the planes and heard the deafening sound of explosions very clearly," said Rashid, adding that the bombardment by the planes came after a drone made several sorties to the area. Jang, January 14, 2006.
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