Free vote would calm Pakistan's Baluchistan-report

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ISLAMABAD, Oct 23 (Reuters) Pakistan's military campaign against autonomy-seeking rebels in gas-rich Baluchistan province risks fueling the insurgency, but free and fair elections would assuage dissent, a think-tank said.

An insurgency has been simmering in Pakistan's biggest but most thinly populated and poorest province for decades, feeding off the perception that the central government siphons off the province's resources.

Nationalist, secular rebels frequently attack gas pipelines, electricity infrastructure and transport links in the province of deserts and barren mountains bordering Afghanistan and Iran.

They also attack security forces and pro-government opponents. A car-bomb killed five people on Saturday.

At the same time, human rights group say the security forces have been responsible for rights violations, including the disappearance of dozens of Baluch activists.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) said Pakistan's ''forgotten conflict'' was rooted in the central government's unwillingness to cede political and economic autonomy.

''The insurgency is unlikely to subside as long as the military relies on repression, killings, disappearances and torture to bend the Baluch to its will,'' the group said in a report seen today.

''As the insurgency continues to rage, Islamabad's ambition to exploit Baluchistan's energy riches is unlikely to be achieved.'' President Pervez Musharraf says a handful of tribal chiefs opposed to development are behind the insurgency. He has vowed to crush the rebels and bring prosperity.

The government denies that the security forces are behind the disappearance of opponents or other abuses.

The military, while retaining control through force, was fast losing the campaign to win hearts and minds, but the situation could be turned around if general elections due by January were free and fair, the ICG said.

''The restoration of participatory representative institutions would reduce tensions between the centre and province, empower moderate forces and marginalise extremists,'' the group said.

While empowering moderate, secular nationalists, free elections would marginalise pro-Taliban Islamists who have been running the province in coalition in recent years, it said.

''Anything short of a democratic election, however, would keep the fires of insurgency burning ... and strengthen religious extremism,'' it said.

Opposition parties say they fear authorities will try to rig the elections, but the government has promised the vote will be free and fair.

The government says the rebels get help from old rival India.

The ICG said it believed any such help was limited and the government had to recognise its policies were mainly responsible for the conflict.

REUTERS SZ DS1503

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