By Aamir Latif
More than 300 suspected separatists have surrendered to security forces in southwestern Balochistan province in line with the government’s ongoing efforts for a political reconciliation in the militancy-hit province, officials said.
“We welcome you all,” Chief Minister of Balochistan Nawab Sanaullah Zehri told the separatists as they laid down their arms before the security forces at a ceremony held at the state assembly in Quetta, the capital of the mineral-rich province, local broadcaster Dawn News reported.
“The country has a big heart to even accept those whose hands are colored with the blood of innocent people. Now it is your turn to pay the country back with your struggle for its stability and progress,” Zehri said.
This is the highest number of militants surrendered at one time. Those who laid down arms included 17 commanders, and members of several outlawed militant groups such as Balochistan Liberation Army, Balochistan Liberation Front, and Balochistan Republican Army.
So far, according to the local media, nearly 2,000 suspected separatists have surrendered over the past 2 years.
Last month, a key Baloch separatist leader, and a former home minister of Balochistan, Nawabzada Gazain Marri returned to Pakistan following the government’s reconciliation efforts.
The large Balochistan province, which is also considered to cover parts of neighboring Iran and Afghanistan, is strategically important because of the rich presence of copper, zinc and natural gas but has beset by violence for over six decades, with separatists claiming that it was forcibly incorporated into Pakistan at the end of British rule in 1947.
With its 600-Kilometers long coastline, Balochistan that makes up 42 percent of Pakistan, is a key route to $54 billion mega project, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which, aims to connect China's strategically important northwestern Xinxiang province to Balochistan’s Gawadar port through a network of roads, railways and pipelines to transport cargo, oil and gas.
The economic corridor will not only provide China cheaper access to Africa and the Middle East but will also earn Pakistan billions of dollars for providing transit facilities to the world’s second largest economy.
The aggressive joint venture annoys the South Asian nuclear giant, India, which sees the project as a threat to its interests in the region, and has openly declared its opposition to that.
Not only India, but the project is facing opposition from Balochistan’s separatists who see this as yet another bid by Islamabad to “steal” their resources with the help of China.
In the past, Chinese workers have been attacked, killed and kidnapped in southwestern and northwestern Pakistan, including in the area of the port in Gawadar, by Baloch separatists and Taliban militants.