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Pakistan sees future in troubled province

Violence rises in Balochistan, which is home to untapped energy reserves.

By David MonteroCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 28, 2006


Given all that glitters in Balochistan, it's no wonder Pakistan places the province at the center of its economic and strategic ambitions: It boasts rich deposits of gas, coal, and copper; a coastline granting access to Persian Gulf trade; and a transit zone for two proposed multibillion-dollar, natural-gas pipelines, one from Iran and one from Turkmenistan.

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In geopolitical terms, Balochistan is a prize - one that Islamabad plans to bolster with $2 billion-plus in investment.

But to the province's powerful tribal leaders, the prospect of such investment is troubling - bringing increased military presence and foreign development without assurances that the rewards will benefit the Baloch people. And tribal militants are making their feelings known in harsh terms.

In recent weeks, militants have fired hundreds of rockets at military installations, derailed trains, and murdered three Chinese engineers at work at a cement factory in the town of Hub. They've also cut off gas supplies for days by attacking existing pipelines.

Both Pakistan's current and future economic growth hinges on developing Balochistan, particularly its energy resources. But, analysts say, that very development could destabilize the country by intensifying pressure on the province - and encourage meddling from other countries with interests in the region.

"Balochistan is potentially very rich. It's where most of the development will be, and the establishment knows it. Suddenly it realizes it needs better control over the province," says Ayesha Siddiqa, a defense analyst in Islamabad.

Senator Sana ullah Baloch, a leading Baloch politician, does not openly condone violence, but says it's a last resort. Like most Balochs, he's not interested in secession. But he feels his local government is a pawn of Islamabad, and wants increased autonomy. His province provides more than 40 percent of Pakistan's energy, but reaps only 12.4 percent in royalties and has historically seen little development aid.

Balochs have come to blows with Islamabad at least four times since 1947, when Pakistan was created. But most analysts agree the province is being squeezed harder now under President Pervez Musharraf.

That pressure has its source in the country's immediate energy needs. The natural-gas reserves currently being exploited in the region are expected to dry up by 2012. With demand growing, Pakistan needs more gas - and most untapped reserves lie in the troubled province. Some 19 trillion cubic feet, the largest known reserves in the country, are still buried in its ground.

That reality sends shivers down the spines of Baloch nationalists. "The entire economic future is completely reliant on Balochistan," points out Senator Baloch. "But it's not for the people of Balochistan. It's all controlled by the federal government and will benefit the federal government."

According to a government energy security document, demand over the next five years is expected to grow at a rate of 7.4 percent annually. Its prescription is to increase domestic exploration as well as diversify supplies by importing gas and liquified natural gas.