MASHKY: It was 6 O’clock on Monday morning as this correspondent suddenly woke to the loud sounds of explosion in the otherwise sleepy town of Mashky-Gajjar, as the army troops entered the town centre to take control where the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), a banned separatist militant group, had been quite active and in recent weeks many separatists organisations had remained involved in helping thousands of quake-affected residents.

As all hell broke loose this correspondent witnessed residents of earthquake-hit Mashky-Gajjar fleeing the city on motorbikes and taking shelter in makeshift huts as army troops entered the town. When this correspondent left the scene at around 5.30pm, foot soldiers were seen on the streets of Mashky, and helicopters were seen making rounds above the area. According to local contacts, the operation continued on its second day on Tuesday. The ongoing skirmishes are reportedly taking place in the outskirts of Mashky-Gajjar, a town in Balochistan’s southern Awaran district, which is one of the epicentres of a series of earthquakes that hit between Sept 24 and Sept 28, leaving more than 500 dead, 25,000 families homeless and 300,000 people affected.

The army gained control of a medical camp run by the Balochistan National Movement (BNM) and the Balochistan Student Organisation-Azad (BSO-Azad) – two separatist political groups operating in Awaran and parts of southern Balochistan. A local eyewitness told Dawn that nearly 500 people were rounded up and released on Monday. Dr Manan, the general-secretary of the BNM, called Dawn on Tuesday and reported that an additional 150 young boys, men and elders were picked up on the second day of the operation. According to Dr Manan, boys as young as 13 years old were among those rounded up and beaten by the security forces. Dawn has been unable to confirm the operation with the Pakistan Army.

An Edhi ambulance driver told this correspondent that the soldiers fired shots into the air as they entered the medical camp at around 6.30am on Monday. At one point he too was severely beaten up. A local resident housing this correspondent said that neighbours had been pulled out of their beds, as they were sleeping under mosquito nets in the open, and out of makeshift huts that had been constructed by neighbours after the earthquake. Dawn witnessed that men who were seen leaving their homes on motorbikes failed to return, prompting concerns in their families that they had been picked up by the army. One local resident claimed that the army stopped men on motorbikes, asking them why “they were in such a hurry to leave”. A local eyewitness at the medical camp heard the army threaten to round up anyone on a motorbike, insisting that the men arrive at the medical camp on foot.

According to the eyewitness, a representative of the army announced that the “Pakistan Army had come to stay for the next five years”, and that the residents had “nothing to fear”. “We have come to help you in your time of need,” the representative reportedly said.

The attack on the medical camp is not the first attempt by the security forces to take control of the camp. Residents and refugees interviewed by Dawn in the days leading up to the operation reveal that they have been afraid of visiting the camp to receive medical aid for fears of assaults by the security forces.

According to BNM and BSO-Azad relief coordinators at Mashky and at a nearby medical aid camp in Nokju, the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) blocked aid trucks from entering earthquake-hit areas for several days. Travelling through the earthquake-affected area it is possible to see lines of trucks stranded at seven out of the total 12 FC checkposts along the road. Shehak Baloch, a BNM coordinator at Nokju said that relief trucks had been stopped at Jebri, Nokju Rindak, Laki, Mangoli, and the Mashky-Gajjar and Awaran FC camps. Visits by Dawn to a handful of FC points in the area in the days leading up to the operation confirm that the security forces had been blocking aid from reaching Awaran district. Piles of tents and lines of trucks were stopped from reaching medical camps and victims of the earthquake.

At the Mashky medial camp, the army representative urged residents to give up names of local “terrorists”, or “members of the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA)”, according to the eyewitness. The BLA is one of a handful of separatist militant groups operating in the province and fighting the Pakistani security forces for an independent Balochistan, though the dominant group active in the Mashky-Gajjar area is the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) headed by doctor-turned-militant leader, Dr Allah Nazar.

Residents have told Dawn that they have felt pressured to give information on local guerilla fighters by FC soldiers in the past, and that they fear reprisal attacks from militant groups. “The security forces put us in a very dangerous situation when they try to force this information out of us,” said a local schoolteacher, who asked to remain unnamed.

Before the men were released they were given aid packages by the army to take home, according to eyewitnesses interviewed by Dawn. Every affected person that Dawn spoke to in the course of 4-5 days said that they did not want to receive aid from the army. Some cited kidnappings, torture and daily harassment. Others said that they were against the army on principle, and wanted a “Free Balochistan”. And yet others said that they were afraid of being punished by the BLF for taking aid from the security forces.

While the 500 men were in the camp, fire was reportedly exchanged between the security forces and the BLF, as the latter tried to regain control of the camp, according to the eyewitness. Bullets flew through the air at the camp, forcing soldiers and the men they had rounded up to lie down on the floor.

This correspondent left the scene at 5.30pm on the first day of the operation, though reports from contacts in the area confirm that the helicopters, shooting, and shelling continued all day on Tuesday.

The security forces launched a major operation in Mashky at the end of December last year, in Mai village close to Nokju. After the operation, the FC reportedly set up 12 new checkpoints that surrounded the Mashky-Gajjar area.

State blocks neutral international aid distributors Dr Abdul Malik, the Chief Minister of Balochistan, has been calling for the intervention of international aid organisations since the earthquake hit Balochistan. Awaran district, the epicentre of the earthquake, is a known stronghold for Baloch separatists, and the security troops have long been an unpopular presence in the area. The area’s main separatist groups, including BNM, BSO-Azad and the BLF, have also been calling for the entrance of neutral international aid distributors.

Both Dr Malik, and the leaders of the BNM and BLF, Dr Abdul Manan and Dr Allah Nazar, have called for the intervention from international organisations like Medecins sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the International Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent (ICRC) and United Nations (UN) humanitarian organisations. However, Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has rejected requests by MSF to enter the country, arguing that Pakistan has the situation under control. UN organisations that specialise in shelter, health, nutrition and sanitation in post-disaster situations, as well as in providing crucial coordination services to local and international relief workers have likewise been refused entry. A team of UN workers were turned back from Karachi last week. The provincial government is currently in overdraft and the federal government is in deficit, prompting experts to question how the authorities plan to bring relief to earthquake-hit victims in Awaran district.

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