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Jeddah – Yasmine El Tohamy – KARACHI: Investigations into a spate of recent attacks in southern Sindh province have led Pakistani officials to believe there is an increasing connection between Sindhi separatists and militant groups from the rebellion-hit Balochistan province, officials with knowledge the investigation has been to Arab News.
However, experts warn that it might be too soon to assume “relationships” between groups.
Late last month, gunmen attacked the Pakistan Stock Exchange building in the city of Karachi, the capital of Sindh, killing two guards and a policeman before security forces killed the four attackers.
Counterterrorism officials said that the attack had been claimed by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), a separatist group from the southwestern province of Balochistan, which had been designated a terrorist organization by the US and European Union.
Just a few weeks earlier, three consecutive explosions killed four people, including two soldiers in Sindh. A shadowy separatist organization, the Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army (SRA), which wants the province to break away from the Pakistani federation, claimed responsibility for the attacks. This week, the SRA also claimed a grenade attack on a Karachi bakery where a retired paramilitary Rangers official was killed.
The SRA and two other Sindhi groups were banned by the government in May this year.
Speaking to the media after the attack on the stock exchange building, Sindh Rangers General Chair Omer Ahmed Bukhari said that the attack proved that “hostile intelligence agents” worked to establish “relations” between the rebel groups of Sindhi and Balochi, adding that he believed the investigation this time will prove this without a doubt.
In a statement emailed to the media after the stock attack, the BLA acknowledged that they had “full support” from Sindhi groups.
“Today both countries (Baloch and Sindhi) are fighting for the independence of their homeland against Pakistan,” the BLA statement said. “We have the full support of the Sindhi state in today’s attack, and that shows the strong bond of brotherhood between the two countries.”
Separatists have fought against security forces for years in Balochistan over what they see as an unfair exploitation of the province’s vast mineral wealth. The guerrillas also oppose – and attack projects related to – China’s Road and Belt infrastructure initiatives in the resource-rich province.
Pakistan regularly blames India for supporting Baloch separatists, a charge denied by Delhi.
Last month, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan told parliament that he had no doubt that India was behind the attack on the stock exchange building, which India immediately denied. Khan did not provide evidence of his allegations, but he said that there were intelligence reports warning of an attack in Pakistan and he had told his cabinet about the threat.
Sindhi separatists such as the Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army have carried out low-intensity attacks in the past, including blowing up railroad tracks. Their attack, however, was not as severe as what had happened in neighboring Balochistan where separatists attacked the Chinese consulate, a leading hotel chain and on many occasions killed security officers who patrolled the coastal highways.
Now, officials are worried that the Sindhi groups might be able to increase their capacity to carry out our deadly attacks with help from Baloch militants and other enemy groups.
“This could be a source of lawlessness in the future if this relationship is not broken,” said a police officer involved in the investigation “of possible links between Sindhi and Baloch rebel groups, supported by India.” He asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media about this issue.
The police official said that Baloch groups already had “some ability” to carry out destructive attacks, “but once a nexus was present, it could also help the nationalists of Sindhi, and that was alarming.”
A senior intelligence officer, who also declined to be named, said there had been an increase in the frequency of attacks by Sindhi groups, which showed the fact that they might have more experienced helpers.
“An increase in capability (through links with Baloch groups) will only be proven if they launch more sophisticated attacks,” he said. “Law enforcement agencies are truly aware and alert of the dangers posed by the growth of this transportation.”
Raja Umar Khattab, a senior anti-terrorism officer in Karachi, said that while working with other groups could increase the nationalist capacity of Sindhi, he did not see the nexus posing a significant threat in the near future.
“Nexus can add to the sub-nationalist capacity of Sindhi,” Khattab said, “but they will not be able to create a great law and order situation because of the readiness of law enforcement agencies.”
Rangers chairman from Sindh also said that Baloch and Sindh separatists were ready to face the London faction of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a Pakistani political party whose leader Altaf Hussain lived in exile in London.
“Hostile intelligence agencies are trying to establish cell liaison, sleeping cells and facilitators from the remaining (separatist) terrorist organizations, which include remnants of the MQM,” Bukhari said in a press conference after the stock exchange attack.
MQM, one of the most prominent political parties in Pakistan, consists mostly of descendants of Urdu-speaking Muslims who migrated to Pakistan around the time of the division of India in 1947.
Having been able to control the Sindh province with an iron grip, the party’s wealth has shrunk in recent years, especially since 2013 when the military launched a crackdown on criminal and militant groups when the murder rate surged and mutilated corpses were dumped in the hallway every day. Many saw the operation, based in Karachi, as an excuse to wrest control of the port city from MQM, an accusation denied by security forces.
While Karachi’s crime rate has dropped sharply and many local businesses have welcomed the operation, accusations of brutal and illegal methods remain.
The UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearance or Forced Disappearance in the past has referred many cases of illegal abductions of MQM workers to the Pakistani government, concluding the Rangers’ MQM “special targeting pattern”, which was denied by paramilitary forces.
Prior to the 2013 operation, law enforcement agencies and many Karachi residents accused the MQM of extorting, kidnapping, torturing and killing opponents and holding the city for ransom by carrying out mass strikes at will.
On Wednesday, Qasim Ali Raza of MQM denied that the party had links to separatists or attacks in Sindh and urged the country to stop the “blind and fraudulent” process of blaming the party.
Karachi-based political analyst Mazhar Abbas said that relations between the MQM and separatist groups, if any, would not work.
“MQM workers have not accepted an alliance with nationalist Sindhi (in the past),” he said, “they also will not accept the idea of friendship today.”
Other analysts say that there is no “strong” evidence to claim the nexus exists.
“Politically, there is a closeness between Sindhi and Baloch nationalists, but speaking of military relations, people need to have strong evidence,” said Sohail Sangi, a Karachi-based analyst who is closely watching separatist groups.
However, Anwar Sajjadi, a security analyst based in Quetta, said that he believed that a developing nexus was a possibility, and added that it was no coincidence that the Sindhi groups had recently begun to voice opposition to Chinese projects that were being built under the umbrella China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which has long been opposed by the Baloch group.
“We have seen uniformity in their attitude,” Sajjadi said. “The same attitude towards CPEC and other (rights) issues brings all these groups closer.”
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