February Issue 2003

By | News & Politics | Published 21 years ago

In late January, a simmering crisis in Balochistan came to a head with the sabotage of the gas pipeline from Sui, cutting off supply to the Punjab. Besides domestic consumers, supply was also suspended to industrial units, causing massive losses to the national exchequer.

The explosion took place near the provincial boundary of Balochistan and Punjab in Rajanpur district, where the Esani and Phonk factions of the Mazari and Bugti tribes have been engaged in armed clashes for several months now, using heavy weapons including mortar guns and rockets against each other.

The feud between the tribes took a new turn in mid-January when the Esanis, a sub-clan of the Mazaris, damaged water and power supply lines passing through their area, depriving the whole population of Dera Bugti agency of drinking water and power for weeks. They fired rockets at the water pipeline, cutting off the supply from Guddu to the Sui gas installation. They threw iron chains on a live 33 KV power transmission line, tripping the supply from the main grid station. Then they disconnected the line and started dismantling and cutting the wire running towards Dera Bugti agency.

According to WAPDA authorities, 66 kilometer long wires from almost 235 poles were dismantled, inflicting losses of over 3.2 million rupees to the economy. Later, an explosion also damaged the main gas supply line near goth Mazari. After a day’s frantic efforts, the engineers restored the gas supply. It had not been fully restored before it was suspended again, this time after explosions at two transmission lines.

This was the first time that the suspension of gas supply from Sui affected a large population outside the province, and the incident sent out shock waves throughout the country. The district administration in Balochistan claims that while the first gas suspension was the result of rocket firing by tribesmen on the gas line, the second and third explosions took place due to technical faults. Gas company officials assert that only the second blast was caused by a technical fault, whereas the first and last were due to sabotage. However, it is still unclear who the people behind the attacks on the gas installations were and what their intended motive was.

Law enforcing agencies reached the site to ensure the security of gas personnel and engineers involved in repair work after the first rocket attack, but returned to their bases after the supply had been restored. That provided an opportunity to the saboteurs to hit again.

The second gas disruption within 24 hours jolted the federal and provincial governments, which seem to have underestimated the situation. Extra forces were deployed only after the damage was done. The law enforcing agencies then made dozens of arrests from the warring groups.

While some blame the Mazari tribesmen for the gas pipeline attacks, others blame the Bugtis. However, Nawab Bugti, the head of the Bugti tribe has denied any involvement and in the incident.

In the past, Bugti tribesmen have attacked the installations, causing damage on a minor scale. The tribesmen have been clamouring for the acceptance of demands ranging from job opportunities at the gas company to health and education facilities. Their protests have included the staging of rallies, fasts unto death and incidents of rocket fire around the gas installations in Sui town. Instead of seeking a peaceful settlement of the issue, the federal government moved forces into Dera Bugti town in June last year, laying siege to Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti’s fort.

The apparent purpose of this action was to pressurise the veteran Baloch politician into asking his tribesmen to give up attacks on the gas installations. Hundreds of armed tribesmen of different Baloch tribes, including the Bugtis and Marris reached Dera Bugti to defend Nawab Akbar Bugti’s fort against the law enforcing agencies.

Tribal elders of the Mazari tribe, like Sardar Ali Sher, averted a clash through negotiations and the parties agreed to cooperate with each other, after the withdrawal of the forces. The federal government and the management of gas companies had agreed to implement agreements reached with the Bugti tribe. In return, the tribal chief assured protection to the gas pipelines and a cessation of hostilities. However, no action has been taken since to implement these assurances.

However, the Bugti tribe categorically denies any involvement in the recent attacks, insisting they would not even think of harming the project they derive their bread and butter from. Nawab Bugti also points out that the site of the blast was Rajanpur district in the Punjab province, a Mazari area the Bugtis would find hard to enter.

Heavy fighting between the tribes could also have resulted in damage to the pipelines. Sub-clans of the Mazari and Bugti tribes who live along the Balochistan-Punjab border at Kashmore-Sui have been engaged in sporadic armed conflict for years. The Esani and Phonk factions got entangled in a feud some three months ago over a murder case. Later, an exchange of fire with heavy weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades, short range missile and mortar guns turned the area into a battlefield between the two private militias.

“The government should have moved its forces into the area on the first day of rocket fire and shelling, preventing the warring groups from damaging the gas lines,” says a senior government official.

Instead of taking stern action against the warring groups in the border areas, the government is said to have made preparations to launch an operation in Dera Bugti. The federal government asked the Nazim Dera Bugti, Mir Zulfiqar Bugti, to impose a night curfew on the whole agency. The Nazim refused to comply with these directives, claiming that the law and order situation was under control and no criminal case had been registered in any of the police or levy stations since June 2002.

Sources claim that chief secretary Balochistan, Saleem Pervaiz, was removed from his post and sent to the OSD pool for suggesting a settlement through the course of dialogue with the tribal elders, rather than the imposition of a curfew.

Sardar Sanaullah Khan Zehri, Balochistan home and tribal affairs minister, also opposed the federal government’s move, declaring that the gas companies should fulfil the promises and agreements reached with Bugti tribal elders.

“At the moment there is no move to conduct an operation in Dera Bugti. However, if the federal government launches an operation, the provincial government will oppose it. Any such move will create complications in tribal society,” the home minister declared.

The provincial government decided to constitute a high-level delegation to hold a dialogue with Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, regarding the Bugti tribe’s grievances towards the gas companies and federal government.

“The delegation should be powerful enough to take decisions in the wake of the talks, instead of merely enjoying the traditional Balochi hospitality of Nawab Akbar Bugti in his ancestral town,” the home minister stressed.

According to one assessment, over 2700 employees, including 1800 workers of the Sui Southern and Oil and Gas Development Corporation currently work in Sui town, where the country’s biggest gas installations are situated and contribute over 50 per cent of the country’s gas supplies. Some 1100 employees are local, while the rest belong to other provinces, particularly Sindh.

Despite having signed an agreement with the provincial government not to recruit unskilled labour from outside the province, the gas companies have made hundreds of appointments from outside, causing heart-burning among the local people.

The gas companies have never fully honoured promises made to the people regarding development schemes in Dera Bugti, including the construction of roads, schools, health centres and petroleum training centres for the local engineers. There are over 500 casual workers in gas companies who have been struggling for the regularisation of their jobs for years.

“The real bone of contention is the rights of the Baloch people over their national wealth. It is being looted, forcibly taken for the use of outsiders. We will not allow anyone to continue looting this wealth,” declared Nawab Akbar Bugti.

The attitude of the federal government and the gas companies towards the local people has angered the different tribes who now strongly oppose oil and gas exploration in their area. They apprehend that the wealth of oil, gas and other mineral resources will be exploited for the benefit of Islamabad and Punjab province, and will not benefit their area.

The Marri tribe is offering tough resistance to government moves to explore huge deposits of oil and gas in the Jandran area of Kohlu agency, on the grounds that they would be exploited for the benefit of Punjab province.

“The Punjabi-dominated establishment and army is in the habit of looting the resources of the Baloch people and seeing the condition of the Bugtis, we Marris will not allow these forces to plunder our national wealth,” Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri said.

There is also a perception among some political circles in Balochistan that the recent rocket attacks are meant to sabotage the proposed billion-dollar international project meant to connect Sui gas installations with the Turkmenistan gas fields and neighbouring India.

“The agreements for laying the gas pipeline from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan are at the implementation stage and some lobbies are using the tribal people as pawns to subvert the plan,” says Siddiq Baloch, a senior journalist. He argues that these lobbies want the huge investment to be made in the Punjab, through shifting the project to Multan.

There is an impression created in the media that the Bugtis extort a handsome amount of money annually from the gas companies working in Dera Bugti, besides receiving royalty. Nawab Bugti denies these allegations and claims that proof of any amount the gas companies give him or the Bugti tribe should be made public.

Although two factions of the Mazari and Bugti tribes are engaged in the feud, other factions and tribal elders of both tribes, who are close relatives, hesitate to take the first step towards reconciliation as they feel it would be construed as a sign of weakness. Through administrative measures, the government could involve Baloch tribal elders from Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan to bring the warring groups to a settlement, to protect the life and property of the common man and the gas installations in the area.

The situation has taken a grave turn and the repercussions for national security can no longer be overlooked. Finally responding to the serious nature of the challenge, Prime Minister Jamali called a high-level cabinet meeting to discuss the law and order situation with reference to the gas pipeline crisis. Strong-arm tactics are, however, likely to exacerbate the crisis rather than facilitate a solution.

Islamabad needs to see to it that long-standing issues are sorted out with the Bugti tribe and past agreements honoured. This is the only way to gain the confidence of the people of Balochistan, and encourage them to cooperate with the oil and gas companies.

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