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Military action risks more Pakistani unrest - group

Written by: Staff
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ISLAMABAD, Sep 14 (Reuters) An influential think tank today urged Pakistan to stop military action against nationalist militants in its restive Baluchistan province and open dialogue with political parties to resolve the conflict.

The International Crisis Group said conflict in the gas-rich province on the border with Afghanistan and Iran could intensify if President Pervez Musharraf's government pressed on with an offensive against rebels fighting for greater autonomy.

''By choosing confrontation, the Musharraf government bears responsibility for the state of the conflict,'' the Brussels-based group said in a report.

''The only one way out is to end all military action, release political prisoners and respect constitutionally guaranteed political freedoms.'' Baluch militants have been waging a low-key insurgency for decades in Pakistan's biggest but least-developed and most sparsely-populated southwestern province.

But tensions have increased since the killing of veteran Baluch nationalist leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti in a military offensive on August 26.

Several people were killed in violent street protests and bomb blasts after Bugti's death, which analysts said would exacerbate trouble in the province.

Baluchis complain of a lack of political representation and say their province's resources are used to the benefit of Pakistan's other provinces, most notably Punjab, while Baluchistan is neglected.

The province of mountains and deserts, which shares borders with Afghanistan and Iran, sits on Pakistan's biggest reserves of natural gas.

The ICG said Baluch nationalists' demand for more autonomy and control over resources enjoyed widespread support and the government could not stem the unrest through force alone.

''The military government should recognise that it faces conflict not with a handful of sardars (tribal chiefs), but with a broad-based movement for political, economic and social empowerment,'' the group said.

''The military can retain control over Baluchistan's territory through sheer force, but it cannot defeat an insurgency that has local support.'' Government officials say a handful of tribal chiefs are stirring up trouble, fearing their power base would be eroded by government plans to develop the region.

Musharraf has announced plans for major infrastructure projects in Baluchistan to win back support while vowing to deal sternly with the militants.

REUTERS DKA KP1041

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