Baloch secessionist leader Brahmdagh Bugti says he wants political engagement with Pakistan — but that its military wants war.

Late last month, Zamur Domki and her 12-year-old daughter were driving back to their home in an upmarket Karachi neighbourhood when a black car swerved across the road, blocking their route. Thinking she was a target of an armed robbery, Ms Domki offered the masked men who surrounded the car her jewellery and mobile phone — but the attackers weren't interested.

An eyewitness recalls that Ms Domki watched in horror as the assassins repeatedly shot her daughter in the chest and neck. Then, it was her turn to die.

Baloch politicians allege the murders, for which no one has been held, were carried out by Pakistan's intelligence services to send a message to Ms Domki's brother, Brahmdagh Bugti — a soft-spoken 31-year-old father of three who, from exile in Geneva, leads the region's largest secessionist party.

Concern over assassinations

In recent months, assassinations of Baloch nationalist politicians and their kin have provoked growing concern. Last year alone, the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has reported, there were at least 107 new cases of enforced disappearances. The missing, the commission's chairperson Zohra Yusuf said, “were increasingly turning up dead.” The United States' State Department has voiced concern, and political leaders have called for action.

Mr. Bugti, in an exclusive interview to The Hindu, said he believes more killing lies ahead. “I've seen this all before,” he says. “In 2005, after the latest phase of our struggle began, we had a procession of Pakistani politicians visiting the region, promising peace and justice. What happened? My grandfather was martyred by the army, our village bombed, and thousands forced into exile. So no, I'm not an optimist: The only choice the Pakistan Army gives the Baloch is death.” In 2006, Pakistan's Army, backed by combat aircraft, launched a massive assault against Baloch insurgents in the districts of Dera Bugti and Kohlu. His grandfather, Nawab Akbar Bugti — a key figure in Baloch politics, and the traditional Sardar of the Bugti tribe — was killed in the assault. “I was just two kilometres away when he was killed,” Mr. Bugti recalls. “For a month and 20 days, we fought our way through ambush after ambush, heading for the Afghan border.”

Hit and run

The fighting had begun in January 2005, following the refusal of General Pervez Musharraf's regime to prosecute an officer alleged to have raped a local doctor. Insurgents loyal to Nawab Bugti responded by storming the Sui, shutting down the source of an estimated 45 per cent of Pakistan's gas fields. Later, there were attacks on senior military commanders — including General Musharraf himself.

“Don't push us,” General Musharraf warned Baloch leaders after that attack. “It isn't the 1970s when you can hit and run and hide in the mountains. This time you won't even know what hit you.”

General Musharraf had, in fact, helped precipitate the crisis. In 2002, his military regime helped bring an Islamist coalition, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, to power in Balochistan. In an insightful article, the journalist Najam Sethi noted this alienated “the old non-religious tribal leadership as well as the new secular urban middle classes of Balochistan who [saw] no economic or political space for themselves in the new military-mullah dispensation.”

Less than a month after the elections, the Baloch National Army launched a series of attacks on Pakistani troops, as well as civilian administrators. In 2004, an investigative report by the journalist Ismail Khoso showed that well-organised insurgent camps were training hundreds of fighters.

Following the defeat of the uprising in Dera Bugti, Mr. Bugti went into hiding in Afghanistan. “The Afghan government was incredibly helpful,” he says, “even though our presence was a source of friction with Pakistan. They allowed thousands of my people to settle in camps around Spin Boldak and Kandhahar. The Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, though, made several attempts to kill me. There was a bombing once; a trap to lure me into an ambush another time. I kept changing houses every two or three months. Finally, I decided to seek asylum in Switzerland.”

Pakistan's government has a less benign account of Mr. Bugti's time in Afghanistan: the camps, it alleges, were used to run an Indian-backed terror campaign targeting migrant workers and administrators.

Mr. Bugti says these charges are unfounded. “I'm not going to deny”, he says, “that some innocents have been killed. But you have to ask yourself, why is this happening? The Baloch see their children being dragged out by Pakistani soldiers and shot in cold blood; they see their homes destroyed; their farms and herds laid waste. There are some who, inflamed with rage, seek revenge.”

Early this year, Pakistan's military — which, even last year, was vowing not to use force without the sanction of Balochistan's elected government — resumed operations. Even as Mr. Bugti's sister and niece were murdered, troops were attacking insurgent positions around Dera Bugti and Kohlu.

“Look,” Mr. Bugti says, “Pakistan's government says one thing and we say another. We want journalists and human rights investigators to visit the region and find out the truth for themselves. Ever since 2004, the government hasn't allowed a single journalist into Dera Bugti and Kohlu independently. That should tell you something about who has something to hide.”

Troubled history

Even though the Pakistan Army was able to crush tribal rebellions espousing Baluch nationalism, new generations of urban educated Baloch were drawn to their cause. Mr. Bugti says he seeks a political resolution to the conflict — but says Pakistan's military wants war: “The Pakistani generals “keep making peace deals with jihadists who have killed thousands of their own people. We are not religious fanatic terrorists — so it won't talk to us.”

praveens@thehindu.co.in

More In: Comment | Opinion