On Friday, Pakistani sources reported that 20 construction workers were gunned down by the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) in Baluchistan, Pakistan's southernmost province. Attackers reportedly overpowered the security guards at a labor camp near the construction site for a dam, entered the sleeping quarters, and shot the victims at point-blank range.
All of the targeted workers were reportedly from provinces other than Baluchistan, with 16 hailing from Punjab and four from Sindh. The eight security guards are all from Baluchistan, and were unharmed. A BLF spokesman reportedly said the target was the Pakistani army and workers at government construction projects.
However, BLF Chief Commander Allah Nazar on Tuesday labeled the version submitted by the Pakistan media as "complete and utter propaganda aimed against the Baloch freedom movement." Nazar insists that their targets had been workers of the Frontier Works Organization (FWO), a body linked to the Pakistani Army.
"If [the construction workers] were just ordinary civilians, why would they be protected by the Frontier Corps [a paramilitary group], and other armed units?" he asked during an interview with VICE News this week.
The Baloch inhabit a troubled area, which crosses the borders of Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. It is a vast swathe of land the size of France, which boasts enormous deposits of gas, gold, and copper, untapped sources of oil and uranium, as well as a highly strategic coastline that spreads over 600 miles near the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz.
In August 1947, the Baloch declared independence, but nine months later the Pakistani army marched into Balochistan and annexed it, sparking an insurgency that has lasted, intermittently, until today.
There are between six and seven Baloch insurgent groups conducting guerrilla warfare in southern Pakistan today. All are markedly secular, and share a common agenda for an independent Balochistan.
Commander of the BLA Baloch Khan and his three bodyguards in an undisclosed location on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Image by Karlos Zurutuza.
"The war began in 1948, but Pakistan has increased its intensity in the last 14 years through brutal methods, such as the 'kill and dump'," explained Nazar, a former physician who is today one of the most visible faces of the Baloch liberation movement as a whole.
During a hearing at the UN's Human Rights Council in March, T. Kumar, the international advocacy director at Amnesty International USA, accused the government of Pakistan of sponsoring a "systematic policy of enforced disappearances, torture, and executions on Baloch people." Kumar also denounced the silence of the international community over the issue.
In August 2014, the International Commission of Jurists, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch called on the Pakistan's government "to stop the deplorable practice of state agencies abducting hundreds of people throughout the country without providing information about their fate or whereabouts."
The exact number of the disappeared is still unknown, as it is impossible to conduct a study in the area. However, The Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, a group that advocates for peaceful protest founded by some of the families of the disappeared, puts the number of people from Balochistan since 2000 at around 20,000.
Nazar speaks of the disappeared, but he points to thousands of internally displaced by "either Pakistani army operations military or deportation policies."
"Only during the month of April, the army has burned more than 200 houses in Mashkay [Nazar's native region], and killed 25 innocent Baluch," he claims.
On Monday, Pakistani media reported that the army had killed 13 members of BLF who were allegedly involved in Friday´s attack, with reports claiming that a prominent Baloch commander was among the victims. But Nazar shared a different version with VICE News.
"There were five corpses," he said. "The man that Pakistani authorities identified as 'commander Hayat Baloch' was only a poor guy who was disabled after he got a bullet in his backbone two years ago.
"The other four were the bodies of people who had been missing for one year after being 'disappeared' by Pakistani agencies," he claimed, labeling the information handed by the Pakistani media as "ridiculous."
A controversial project
Friday's 20 victims were working on the highway road to Gwadar, a coastal location in the remote southwest. It's a particularly sensitive area due to a controversial Chinese-Pakistani project that would give Beijing control over the highly strategic deep-water port of Gwadar. The Pakistani government has already announced plans to inaugurate the piece of infrastructure by the end of this month.
The Baloch have openly expressed deep concern for what they fear could turn the region into another Karachi. Today Pakistan's main port, in the neighboring Sindh region, Karachi grew from its 200,000 inhabitants in 1947 to the almost 25 million in the metro region today. The Baloch claim that such an infrastructure could break the fragile demographic balance of their region and turn them into a minority in their own country.
"The future may look bleak, but the Gwadar project has already brought a lot of disgrace to our people," Nazar said. "Without going any further, over 40,000 people living in the villages alongside the highway have been forced to leave."
Nazar calls on "all those multinationals trying to settle and steal the resources of Balochistan on behalf of colonial empires" to cease their activities, and repeats that the Baloch Liberation Movement will continue defending their land from "aggression of any kind." Apparently, there's a wide range of the latter.
"The army and the Pakistani intelligence services are to blame for the growth of radical Islam in Baluchistan. On the one hand, it´s a way to divert attention from our national claims and our legitimate struggle; on the other hand, they´re using these radicals to fight against and destroy our movement," Nazar said.
The commander adds that Pakistani security forces are sponsoring up to six training camps in Balochistan where Islamic State (IS) recruits are allegedly being trained.
"Their presence in our streets is so overwhelming that they even delver pamphlets calling for recruitment," he said.
Peter Chalk, a political analyst at the RAND Corporation, confirmed to VICE News the existence of Islamist groups deployed in Balochistan as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Tehrik-e-Taliban.
Nazar says that he doesn't want to finish our interview without sending an SOS message to the rest of the world.
"We want the civilized world to know that we are suffering genocide at the hands of Pakistan," he said. "We want international organizations to understand this and act accordingly."
Follow Karlos Zurutuza on Twitter: @KarlosZurutuza