The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) on Tuesday claimed responsibility for the suicide attack at Karachi University that killed four people, including three Chinese. This was one of the most daring attacks against the Chinese in recent years, thousands of whom are involved with the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project that passes through the restive Balochistan province.
Balochistan has long demanded independence from Pakistan, and the multi-billion-dollar OBOR has further inflamed passions. It is the largest province of Pakistan, comprising 44 percent of the country’s area, but is the least developed and inhabited, comprising only 5 percent of the total population.
The province is rich in resources such as natural gas, oil, coal, copper and sulphur, but the local populace is not only deprived of a share in development, but also in governance. The Baloch are primarily Sunnis but have different cultural and social practices than the Punjabis who control most of Pakistan’s political and military power.
The BLA, operating out of Balochistan, has attacked Chinese citizens and interests earlier too. The group has for years been leading a low-level insurgency against Islamabad, and the Pakistani establishment has retaliated by a brutal crackdown on activists, often on the basis on suspicion, thus drawing international condemnation.
BLA: A brief history
The BLA was officially founded in 2000, and since then, has been launching a series of deadly strikes against Pakistani security officials. Other than Pakistan, the group has also been banned by the United States and the United Kingdom.
Many analysts suspect the roots of the BLA lie in the Independent Balochistan Movement of the 1970s, comprising ethnonationalist insurgencies and violent student protests. That movement was said to have been funded by the Russians, who were then involved in Afghanistan’s tumultuous affairs. However, the movement died down soon after Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan, only to resurrect a decade later.
The Balochistan conflict
Insurgency in Balochistan started since the late 1940s, but has weakened over the last few years. A ruthless clampdown by Pakistani authorities; use of Islamist terrorists against Baloch fighters; and infighting among insurgents, leading to the formation of several splinter groups often at each other’s throats, have considerably weakened the movement.
Probably the biggest Baloch militant leader in recent history, 79-year-old Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, was killed in August 2006 while fighting against the Pakistani Army, in which the latter suffered almost 70 casualties. The Pakistani government had blamed him for a series of deadly bomb blasts and a rocket attack on then President Pervez Musharraf.
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One of the biggest attacks against Pakistani forces lately was on February 2, 2022, when the BLA attacked two Army outposts in Panjgur and Nushki districts in Balochistan. Though the Pakistani military maintained that a dozen soldiers were killed, the BLA claimed to have killed over 100. In January this year, another attack on a checkpost in Kech district resulted in the death of 10 Pakistani soldiers.