September issue 2004

By | News & Politics | Published 20 years ago

Hundreds of Marri Baloch tribesmen, armed to the teeth, took up position on the Kohlu mountains, one of Pakistan’s most backward, but oil and gas rich areas, to challenge the government’s policies in Balochistan.

The tribesmen, who call themselves “guerillas” waging a war for the rights of the Baloch population, were armed with Russian Kalashnikovs, heavy machine and anti-aircraft guns and RPGs, picked up in Afghanistan during their 14 years in self-exile. Most of them are educated with military/guerilla training received in Afghanistan. Their chieftain, Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri, who was in self-exile, called his tribesmen to leave their homes and join him in Afghanistan in 1980. More than 12,000 Marris responded to their leader’s call and left Pakistan to settle in the Afghan provinces of Kandahar and Helmand.

According to political analysts, Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri, who believes that the Baloch cannot get their political and economic rights without an armed struggle, called his tribesmen to Afghanistan to train them in guerilla warfare.

The Marri guerillas are currently lead by Nawabzada Balach Marri, the son of the ailing Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri. Balach, an electronics engineer from Moscow, won the provincial assembly seat from Kohlu with record votes of over 18,000 — the highest ever cast in the constituency — despite all efforts by the administration to support his rival candidate, Mir Mohabat Khan Marri, the then provincial caretaker minister.

After a sudden increase in the Marri tribes militant’s actions in 2000, other militant groups also joined them to carry out joint actions across the province. Rockets attacks on F.C. posts, landmine and dynamite explosions against F.C. personnel were witnessed in the neighbouring Dera Bugti tribal agency. Similar attacks were also launched in Kalat, Dalbundeen, Khuzdar, Gwadar, and other areas by the militants in a show of strength.

In a recent army search operation in the mountainous Kachh area against the militants, regular as well as paramilitary troops, despite using aircrafts and heavy cannons, failed to nab or kill any of the militants. However, two soldiers reportedly lost their lives, while many others were injured. A couple of months back, the government decided to take action against the militants and secure the mountains between Kohlu and Kahan that are still in the possession of the Marri militants. An army of Levy forces and Bijrani tribesmen loyal to the government, backed by the Frontier Corps, battled with the militants for two days, in which one Bijrani tribesman and one levy personnel were killed, while no losses were inflicted on the militants. After gauging the capability of militants and their political support from nationalist parties, the government has stopped their operation for the time being.

Locals in Kohlu claim that there are over 30 to 40 militant camps where Baloch youth have joined the militants to train in guerilla warfare. However, government agencies put the figure of the camps as little over 15. The first ever visit of a two-member journalist team from Quetta to some of these camps in the mountains revealed that each camp had 300 to 500 recruits. The camps were established in militarily strategic and protected areas, housed in abandoned buildings set up by the Pakistan army during the 1973 operation. The militants, equipped with modern communication gadgets, apart from physical training, spend their time discussing possible government military actions, reading newspapers and listening to the BBC every night to keep up with public and political reactions and government policies. They also visit areas under the influence of opponents and government forces to spread their message of an armed struggle against anti-government policies.

Mir Balach Marri settled all enmities with the neighbouring Bugti tribe a couple of months back in accordance with the tribal customs and traditions. Now both tribes have formed a strong alliance against the government. Some 300 well-trained Marri tribes rushed to the aid of Nawab Akbar Bugti to fight para-military forces a couple of years back when the Bugti fort in Dera Bugti was under seige in the wake of increased attacks on gas pipelines. The government later withdrew their forces after an understanding was reached with the Bugti tribe.

The Tali (Sibi)-Kahan road is in complete control of the militants who have established dozens of check posts and camps, while hundreds of men are perched on the mountain tops all the way from Kahan to Tali. Not a single vehicle belonging to anyone hostile to their cause is allowed on the road. The Kahan-Kohlu road used by Frontier Corps vehicles is a death trap of landmines. Despite regular mine-sweeping checks, incidents of mine explosions killing or maiming para-military personnel or members of opponent tribes are commonplace. In a recent action, the militants abducted two Frontier Corps personnel and one police constable and declared that they will not be released unless the government stops its operations and gives up its plans of constructing cantonments in the area.

The Marri tribesmen are also believed to be involved with other militant groups who are working underground in Balochistan. The government believes that the militants support the Baloch Liberation Army, an organisation responsible for the many bomb blasts and rocket attacks that have rocked the province and killed scores of military personnel. However, leaders of militant tribesmen firmly deny any connection, but openly admit their sympathy for the BLA. With the exception of Dr. Abdul Hai Baloch of the National Party, all Baloch nationalist leaders and student organisations openly support the guerilla warfare against para-military forces by regularly issuing statements in the press. According to government sources, the Marri militants are being financed by neighbouring Iran, some Gulf states and probably the United States who want to sabotage the Chinese involvement and influence in the building of the deep sea port in Gwadar.

The writer is a journalist based in Quetta and is President of Quetta Press Club (QPC).