QUETTA -- The recent surge of anti-China violence in Balochistan has been linked with safe havens for militant groups in Iran, analysts and law enforcement officials said.
Pakistani troops put an end to four days of assaults by separatists in Balochistan province, the army said Saturday (January 5), putting the final death toll at 20 militants and nine soldiers.
Late Wednesday, militants from the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) staged twin assaults on army posts in the province's Noshki and Panjgur districts.
The Noshki assault was quashed on Thursday, but the attack in Panjgur was quelled only on Saturday, the army said.
Pakistan and United States both have declared the BLA a terrorist outfit.
The days of fighting came as Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was making an official visit to China for the opening of the controversial Beijing Winter Olympics.
On January 25, the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF), another proscribed ethno-separatist militant group, killed 10 security personnel in Kech district.
The Baloch Nationalist Army (BNA), a newly formed militant group, claimed responsibility for the January 20 bombing of a crowded market in Lahore that killed three civilians and injured more than 25 others.
The attacks in Balochistan prompted the Interior Ministry to issue a countrywide alert on Thursday, ordering strict vigilance by intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
Separatists have waged an insurgency in the vast southwestern province for years, fuelled by anger that its abundant reserves of natural resources are not relieving citizens from crushing poverty.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project linking China's far-western Xinjiang region with the strategic port of Gwadar in Balochistan has sparked claims that the vast influx of investment does not benefit locals.
Iran safe havens
Tehran is turning a blind eye to militant hideouts on its soil near the Pakistani border, allowing terrorists free rein to flow into Balochistan and launch attacks, officials say.
The militants who targeted security forces in Panjgur and Noshki Wednesday could have used Iranian soil and travelled from Iran, said Ziaullah Langove, the provincial home minister.
"The militants come and go there, and the attacks that happened this time, you know, that we have a very long border with Iran," said Langove during a news conference at the Quetta Press Club Thursday.
Arrests of terror suspects in Balochistan in the recent past have revealed the involvement of Iran in suicide attacks and destabilising activities in Pakistan, officials said.
Balochistan's counter-terrorism authorities on September 24 announced the arrest of three accused members of a terrorist cell with ties to Iran during n intelligence-based operation in Turbat district, Balochistan province.
"The arrests were made as part of an investigation into an August 20 suicide attack on Chinese personnel in the Pakistani port city of Gwadar," said a law enforcement official based in Quetta.
Baloch militant groups have set up sanctuaries in Mirjava and other Iranian border areas adjacent to Makran region, Balochistan province, he said.
"The members of various Baloch militant groups hiding in those sanctuaries flee back to Iran after attacks in Balochistan," he said.
"The suicide bomber involved in the August 20 suicide attack on Chinese personnel in ... Gwadar was transported from the Ramin area of Iran," a senior Gwadar-based intelligence official told Pakistan Forward on condition of anonymity in September.
A variety of Baloch separatist groups perpetrated 71 terrorist attacks in the province in 2021, claiming 95 lives, according to an annual security report prepared by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS).
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was the only Pakistani province to suffer more terrorist acts.
CPEC spurs militancy
While Iran gives Baloch insurgents space to hide and regroup, China inflames them with its overbearing economic presence in resource-rich Balochistan.
The exponential growth of Chinese influence in Balochistan -- with Chinese companies exploiting local resources without care or concern for the impact on locals -- is driving serious unrest in the province, say lawmakers and observers.
Beijing over the past few years has inked deals with Pakistan for several multi-billion-dollar infrastructure projects, raising concerns over Chinese influence and creating resentment by paying its nationals more than it pays Pakistani workers.
"The February 2 attacks on Pakistani security forces' bases hours before Prime Minister Imran Khan's China visit were linked with the Baloch population's grievances with Beijing over its exploitation of [Balochistan's] natural resources," said Mujtaba Baloch, a Panjgur-based political activist.
Chinese investment in Balochistan without the provincial public's consent is further worsening the overall security situation in the province, he said.
Anger over growing Chinese influence in Balochistan has spurred Baloch and Sindhi militant organisations to ally with each other, fuelling concern that the combined group will step up violent activities in the region.
The Baloch Raji Aajoi Saangar (BRAS) and the Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army are now working together "in light of the current scenario in the region as both [Baloch and Sindhis] have severe reservations over growing Chinese influence", BRAS said in a statement in July 2020.
In Karachi, militants attacked the Chinese consulate in November 2018, killing four people.
In June 2019, four terrorists attacked the Pakistan Stock Exchange, also in Karachi, killing three security guards and a policeman. A Chinese consortium owns 40% of the Pakistan Stock Exchange, the BLA said, claiming responsibility for that assault.
Protests in Gwadar are another indication of Pakistanis' concerns over Chinese influence on their livelihoods and daily lives.