The Baluchi Liberation Army (BLA) has claimed responsibility for the death of six Pakistani soldiers whose helicopter crashed last night over Belochistan province. Islamabad, however, has defined it as an "accident", without explaining the causes or circumstances of the calamity.
The soldiers were killed in Harnai district, 150 kilometers northeast of the provincial capital, Quetta. Regardless of whether it was a mortar attack - as the rebels maintain - or an accident, it seems plausible that the helicopter's mission had to do with the rescue of two other soldiers kidnapped in that area three days earlier by the secessionists. This is indicated by the authorship note released by the ELB.
This new incident has raised suspicions because, at the beginning of last month, another six Pakistani soldiers died in another "accident" helicopter when it was flying over the same troubled province. While then the climatic circumstances were adverse - with monsoon rains that have ended up causing more than 1,600 deaths in Pakistan, with Balochistan as one of the most affected areas - yesterday, Sunday, the weather was good.
The August "accident" in the Lasbela district was claimed by another Baluchi armed organization, which claimed to have shot it down. Earlier still, in December, there was another poorly explained military helicopter crash, this time over Pakistani-occupied Kashmir, killing two. Two or three days later, none other than India's Chief of Defense Staff, General Bipin Rawat, also died in a helicopter crash.
Baluchi is the largest of the Pakistani provinces, but its population density is very low. Rich in gas, the Baloch nationalists describe the exploitation of its resources by the state as "plunder". The secessionist conflict has had many ups and downs over the past three-quarters of a century, but has picked up since 2006, when General Musharraf killed Baluchistan's oldest figure in arms, Nawab Akbar Bugti, in an air raid.
It was at this time that the government installed in Kabul began to openly support the Baloch insurgents, in fair payment for Islamabad's support for the Taliban. Pakistan has also repeatedly accused the Indian consulates in Afghanistan of supporting the Balochi insurgency (in this case, as a counterpoint to Pakistani support for the Kashmiri insurgency). The Baluchis, for their part, never tire of repeating their willingness to receive help for their cause "wherever it comes from."
Five months ago, a suicide attack claimed by the same Baluchi organization killed three Chinese employees of the Confucius Institute of the University of Karachi - the director and two professors - as well as their driver. The Baluchis see the port of Gwadar, on their coast, as a colonial project, which, with Chinese help, should directly connect the Chinese Xinjian with the waters of the Arabian Sea, crossing the disputed Kashmir and Pakistan. A project seen with bad eyes from other capitals.
The same corridor has been under attack by the self-styled Pakistan Taliban Movement, an armed Pashtun organization with no relation to the Afghan Taliban. There are thousands of Baluchis and Pashtuns who have little interest in the rule of law, since they have traditionally lived by smuggling across an artificial border imposed on them by the British.
The Pakistani military itself is often the first offender. In Balochistan it has committed its worst excesses in terms of arbitrary arrests, torture and disappearances. In Baluchistan, keeping a Pakistani flag up involves permanent entrenchment behind sandbags for protection.
Last July, the Balochi insurgency kidnapped two outsiders - a Pakistani officer and a friend - in the town of Ziarat and then killed them. The Baluchi Liberation Army is listed as a terrorist organization by the EU and the US.
Baluchi sovereignty is at least as old as Pakistan, whose birth was not welcomed by some of the local hierarchs and clan chiefs. The Baluchi people are divided between Pakistan and Iran and have a greater linguistic and ethnic affinity with the Persian peoples than with those of the Indian subcontinent.