QUETTA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Naimatullah Gichki prays his party can win Saturday’s election and stop shadowy death squads killing members of his ethnic group in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Baluchistan.
But now insurgents from his own Baluch community are attacking his party for standing in the polls.
“We are attacked from all sides,” said the slight, bespectacled spokesman of the Baluchistan National Party.
“For the separatists, we are targets because we are standing in elections. The death squads kill us because we are Baluch.”
Media attention in the run-up to the polls has focused on the Pakistani Taliban, who have denounced the vote as un-Islamic and attacked rallies, killing more than 90 people since April.
But gas- and mineral-rich Baluchistan is bloody even when there are no elections. Kidnappings and killings are common.
Ethnic Baluch guerrillas have been fighting for independence from Pakistan for decades. They attack teachers, government officials and members of other ethnic groups who they see as unfairly exploiting their province’s resources.
In response, death squads that human rights groups and Baluch activists say are organized by the security forces have rounded up and killed hundreds of Baluch, a tactic the rights groups call “kill and dump”.
“This is not counterinsurgency - it is barbarism,” the Human Rights Watch said in a 2011 report in which it accused the security forces of being responsible for dozens of cases of abduction, abuse and killing.
The military denies running death squads.
The Supreme Court is hearing a case regarding the fate of hundreds of missing Baluch and one security official told Reuters that paramilitary forces began dumping bodies in the port city of Karachi after the court’s increased scrutiny.
The separatists want Baluchistan to secede, a nightmare scenario for Pakistan that evokes the national trauma of losing East Pakistan, which fought a bloody war for independence and became Bangladesh in 1971.
Most separatist groups condemn the election and threaten to kill anyone who takes part. Grenades have been thrown at BNP offices and on Monday, three schools and a clinic designated as polling stations were blown up.
“We are fighting a war, not an election,” Gichki said.
The BNP’s decision to contest polls has split families.
Two BNP candidates have brothers accused of leading insurgent groups. Many hope the party’s participation will help ease the violence in Baluchistan, an arid land whose barren hills hide big reserves of natural gas as well as rich deposits of copper and gold.
Baluchistan makes up 44 percent of Pakistan’s land mass but is home to only 10 million of its 180 million citizens. Its revenues from resources have enriched officials but there is little sign of the cash on Quetta’s dusty streets, where campaign posters are plastered over crumbling walls.
Baluchistan’s instability is fueled in part by its location, with Afghanistan to the northwest, Iran to the west and the Arabian Sea to the south.
Baluch gunmen control smuggling routes for everything from heroin flowing out of Afghanistan onto the international market to cheap oil pouring in from Iran.
In the port city of Gwadar, Imam Bheel, a Baluch businessman who the United States has designated a global heroin “kingpin” is hosting election campaign meetings despite being wanted by police over the murder of an official.
Bheel is supporting a bid by his son, Yaqoob Bizenjo, for a provincial assembly seat, two Baluch senators who know Bheel said.
“Imam Bheel is campaigning for his son just like others are, by meeting important people,” former senator Malik Baloch said. “He faces threats from various elements, including Baluch rebels, so he is very careful.”
Bheel and Bizenjo were not immediately available for comment. Bizenjo has previously denied that his father is involved in drug smuggling or murder.
The nationalist rebels are not the only ones attacking election candidates.
Dr Ruquiya Hashimi has received numerous death threats from right-wing Sunni militants because she is a Shi’ite from the Hazara ethnic minority.
Militants killed her brother-in-law three years ago. Another Hazara candidate narrowly escaped a suicide car-bomb attack near a political meeting last week.
But she says she will not give up.
Like Gichki, she hopes to win power in the polls and protect her people. Nearly 200 Hazaras were killed in two sectarian bombings this year. The Sunni group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which subscribes to the hardline Takfiri Deobandi school of Islam, claimed responsibility. They consider Shi’ites apostates.
The LeJ, historically supported by Pakistan’s spy agency as a proxy force to further the military’s aims, is banned. But the flags of an ideologically affiliated party flutter from lamp posts in Quetta.
“We have fear and hope all mixed together,” said Hashimi, a dark shawl covering her pink shalwar khameez tunic and trousers. “We have no choice. We cannot stand there and do nothing.”
The polls will mark the first time a civilian government has completed its full term and handed over power to another in Pakistan’s coup-prone history.
But despite the change of civilian guard, real power lies with the military.
New political leaders will find it impossible to stop the death squads, the nationalist killings or sectarian attacks without the support of the security forces.
“The civilian government has been totally powerless. Baluchistan is controlled by the military,” said Malik Siraj Akbar, a Baluch journalist living in Washington.
Additional reporting by Matthew Green and Mehreen Zahra-Malik in ISLAMABAD; Editing by Robert Birsel