ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The elusive leader of a major rebel group fighting for independence in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province said he would welcome cash and other help from India, words likely to alarm Islamabad which accuses New Delhi of stirring trouble there.
In his first video interview in five years, Allah Nazar Baloch, head of the ethnic Baluch group Baluchistan Liberation Front (BLF), also vowed further attacks on a Chinese economic corridor, parts of which run through the resource-rich province.
The planned $46 billion trade route is expected to link western China with Pakistan’s Arabian Sea via a network of roads, railways and energy pipelines.
“We not only wish India should support the Baluch national struggle diplomatically and financially, but the whole world,” said Baloch, a doctor-turned-guerrilla believed to be about 50, in filmed responses to questions sent by Reuters.
Baloch’s appeal for Indian help may deepen Pakistani suspicions that India has a hand in a decades-old insurgency in the vast southwestern province.
Historically fraught relations between the nuclear-armed neighbours deteriorated this month after 18 Indian soldiers in Kashmir were killed in an attack on an army base that New Delhi blames on Pakistan. Pakistan denies the accusation.
On Thursday, India said it had carried out strikes on suspected militants in its first direct military response to the raid.
In the buildup to the army base attack, Pakistan had voiced outrage over the crackdown on protests in India’s part of the Muslim-majority region, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hit back by accusing Pakistan of atrocities in Baluchistan.
Baloch, leader of one of three main armed groups fighting for Baluchistan’s independence, said that while he wanted support from India, the BLF had not received funding from Modi’s government, or India’s spy agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).
“We welcome the statement that Narendra Modi gave to morally support the Baluch nation,” added Baloch, clad in a traditional beige shalwar kurta outfit, with an automatic rifle across his lap and ammunition hanging from his belt.
Pakistan’s military had no comment on Baloch’s interview.
Baloch is the only leader of a sizeable separatist group who is believed to be waging a guerrilla war from inside Baluchistan; the other two leaders are in exile in Europe.
Security analysts say his fighters stage most of the attacks in the province and have borne the brunt of army operations against the insurgency. Reuters has not been able to establish the scale of the BLF campaign.
Pakistan has long suspected India of stoking the Baluchistan rebellion. Those fears grew in March when Pakistan arrested a man it said was a RAW spy in Baluchistan, and accused him of “subversive activities”. India denied he was a spy.
Brahamdagh Bugti, the Switzerland-based leader of the Balochistan Republican Party, another major separatist outfit, last week told Indian media that he planned to seek “political asylum” in India.
BLF chief Baloch claims to have “thousands” of fighters. Domestic news coverage of the Baluchistan conflict is rare and foreign journalists are broadly forbidden from visiting the province.
Baloch answered questions in a video recording, which was sent electronically.
Although the exact date of the recording could not be verified, he was responding to questions sent by Reuters six weeks ago. His responses contradicted government claims that he had been killed last year.
China’s investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has brought fresh focus on Baluchistan, which is endowed with rich but largely unexploited reserves of copper and gold.
Several planned CPEC routes will snake across Baluchistan to its deep-sea port in Gwadar.
Chronic instability in the province, which has experienced waves of revolt by Baluch nationalists since it was formally incorporated into Pakistan in 1948, is a source of concern for China, which has appealed to Pakistan to improve security.
Baloch, speaking from an undisclosed location, called CPEC a Chinese “imperialistic scheme”, and vowed to attack roads, security personnel and construction crews associated with it.
Government officials say security has improved.
They point to freshly-paved CPEC roads, built at breakneck speed despite Baluchistan’s rugged terrain, as proof of success.
To allay Chinese fears, Pakistan is also raising a force of 15,000 personnel, mainly serving army soldiers, to secure the corridor.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters at a regular briefing that China appreciated Pakistan’s efforts.
“We believe Pakistan will strengthen its guard against risks to projects and continue to provide a security guarantee for Chinese personnel and projects in Pakistan,” Geng said.
But risks remain. Frontier Works Organization, the army-run company building most of the CPEC roads in dangerous areas, said 44 workers had been killed and about 100 wounded in attacks on its CPEC sites over the past two years.
“We are attacking the CPEC project every day. Because it is aimed to turn the Baluch population into a minority. It is looting, plundering and taking away our resources,” Baloch said.
Baloch and other separatists fear that indigenous Baluch people, who are estimated to number about 7 million people out of Pakistan’s 190 million population, will become an ethnic minority in their ancestral lands if other groups flock to the region to work on exploiting its natural resources.
The rebel leader alleged that 150,000 people had been evicted from the route of the trade corridor by security forces to clear the way for roads and other infrastructure.
Pakistan’s military, which manages security for most of the province, did not comment on the number.
Human rights activists say that thousands of people have been killed or arbitrarily detained in Baluchistan by the military, a charge Pakistani security forces deny.
Charges of abuse have also been levelled at rebel groups, including the BLF, which are accused of targeting non-Baluch citizens as part of their rebellion.
Baloch denied BLF killed civilians, but said his group did go after “traitors”.
Asked if he would be open to negotiations with the Pakistani state, the rebel chief was clear: there would be no dialogue with what he considered “the biggest terrorist country”.
“There will be no negotiations with Pakistan without national independence and without the presence of the United Nations,” he said. “Our destination is independence.”
Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Beijing; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Drazen Jorgic