Balochistan Liberation Army fighters at an undisclosed location in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

PESHAWAR – While Prime Minister Imran Khan sought to assure China that its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) investments are safe and sound for expansion in Pakistan, ethnic Baloch rebels sent the opposite message by ramping up attacks in areas where Chinese projects have been targeted as a proxy of the Pakistani state.

The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), an Afghan-based militant group seeking self-determination for the Baloch people and separation of Balochistan province from Pakistan, is opposed to Chinese investment including at the port of Gwadar, which it sees as in league with the Pakistan army in colonizing and exploiting the region’s rich mineral and energy resources.

The US$60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a crucial spoke of Beijing’s BRI, has been plagued by security threats that have seen the Pakistan army ramp up deployments to Balochistan, particularly to protect the Gwadar port development from insurgent threats.  

In the biggest Baloch insurgent attack in recent years, the BLA claims to have killed over 100 Pakistan soldiers and officers in two separate attacks on Frontier Corps bases in Balochistan’s Panjgur and Noshki districts that started on February 2, symbolically coinciding with Khan’s trip to Beijing to meet top Chinese officials including President Xi Jinping.

In a February 5 statement, the BLA announced the completion of what it referred to as “Operation Ganjal”, which reportedly saw 16 militants attack army bases in Nushki and Panjgur.

The army disputed the BLA’s death count, saying that only nine of their soldiers were killed in the twin simultaneous attacks in Pakistan-Iran border areas. The army claimed to have killed 20 militants in counterattacks. The army said it believed the attacks were likely orchestrated from Afghanistan and India, without elaborating.

Some observers believe that the BLA operatives may also have cross-border sanctuaries in Iran. Adding to that intrigue, Iran Foreign Ministry official Hossein Sheikholeslam recently said that Gwadar port was not a secure trade link amid recent unrest, and encouraged China and Pakistan to use its rival Chabahr port instead.

Pakistan Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad said during a press conference in Islamabad on February 3 that weapons left behind by the US and NATO troops in Afghanistan were used in the BLA’s lethal attacks on Pakistani security forces in Balochistan, raising certain speculation that the Afghan-Taliban may be cosseting the militant group.

In late January, the Pakistan army said insurgents killed 10 soldiers in an attack on a military post near Gwadar port, representing the heaviest death toll for the army in Balochistan in several years.

Separatism is just one of the looming problems centered on Balochistan. Photo: AFP

The Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR) – a mouthpiece of the Pakistan armed forces – affirmed on February 5 that Pakistan army operations had ended and that the attacks were successfully repelled. Authorities have tried to impose a ban on local media reports that do not parrot the official version of the attacks.

Independent observers, however, said the situation is still fluid, particularly in the Panjgur area, where security forces are still carrying out clearance operations. Mobile phone and internet connections have been cut off and an unannounced but forcefully enforced curfew has been imposed in Panjgur and Noshki districts.

Mansur Khan Mahsud, executive director of the Islamabad-based FATA Research Centre (FRC), an independent think tank, told Asia Times that the BLA’s recent attacks on the army camps were sophisticated and complex.

“It shows that the BLA military capabilities have improved a lot –  that is why the security forces took over 50 hours to clear the camps,” he said. “The attacks certainly sent a message to China and Pakistan at a time when the Pakistani prime minister was on a four-day official visit to China. The BLA sent a clear warning to both to leave Balochistan and stop CPEC projects in the province,” Mansur said.

A BLA statement issued on February 5 claimed that the BLA’s Majeed Brigade held control of the army’s Panjgur camp for 60 hours and had repelled an attempt by the Pakistan military’s Special Services Group when tried to retake the camp.  

The incident came within a week of a similar attack on an army post in the Kech area near the country’s western border with Iran which killed at least 10 Pakistani soldiers. 

Mushahid Hussain Syed, chairman of the Pakistan Senate Committee on Defense, told Asia Times that the timing of the attacks deliberately coincided with Khan’s visit to China and aimed to embarrass his government while he tried to convince Beijing that terror threats had been contained or curbed.

“What is worrying for Pakistani policymakers is the scale, size and sophistication of these attacks and the ability of the terrorists to sustain fighting pitched battles, discrediting the official claims of a victory over terrorism,” Mushahid said.  

Ethnic Baloch militants in Pakistan in a 2020 file photo. Image: Twitter

He referred to US Central Command Commander General Kenneth McKenzie’s recent statement saying the “rising terrorism threats to Pakistan” indicate a “regional” dimension to the danger arising in post-US withdrawal Afghanistan.

“We should accept that we still lack a cohesive and comprehensive counter-terrorism (CT) strategy, plus a dedicated CT body for this purpose. The National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) remains a still-born child. So back to the drawing board for our security czars,” Mushahid added.  

In the past, the BLA had carried out several high-profile attacks on China’s interests. In 2018, the militant group stormed the Chinese consulate in Karachi, killing seven people and injuring several others.

In June 2020, the BLA attacked the Pakistan Stock Exchange building in Karachi in what was viewed as an attack on a Chinese consortium including China Financial Futures Exchange Company Ltd, Shanghai Stock Exchange and Shenzhen Stock Exchange that holds a 40% strategic share in the Pakistan Stock Exchange.