12 October 2022
By Xari Jalil & Rehan Piracha
In a rare statement made by Colonel (retd) Ubaidullah Baig, a senior minister of Gilgit-Baltistan, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) were referred to as “assets of the country, and that despite the potential damage to Pakistan, they were being prepared for jihad in Kashmir.”
“Taliban hamare assasse hain aur humain Kashmir mein jihad key liye inn ko tayyar karna hai,” said Colonel Ubaidullah while speaking on Aaj TV’s show Spotlight with Munizae Jahangir. “Toh iss mein humain thora nuqsan uthane pare bhi toh koi masla nahin.” (The Taliban are our assets and we need to prepare them to wage jihad in Kashmir…So even if we have to bear the damages, there should be no problem.)
However, these statements made by the minister were censored and taken off the air.
Colonel Ubaid went on to reveal that the militants who had recently held him, hostage, were actually the local affiliates of the proscribed TTP. The local militants identify themselves as Mujahedeen Gilgit-Baltistan and Kohistan.
عسکریت پسندوں نے مجھے روکا ان کا کہنا تھا کہ جس طرح پاکستان کے دوسرے حصوں سے ہمارے لوگ غیر مشروط رہا ہوئے ہیں گلگت بلتستان میں ہمارے ساتھیوں کو نہ چھوڑا گیا تو آپ نہیں جا سکتے : کرنل )ر( عبید اللہ بیگ @MunizaeJahangir .#GilgitBaltistan pic.twitter.com/P70Y5m3355
— SpotLight AajTv (@SpotlightAajtv) October 11, 2022
Munizae Jahangir’s show was aired on October 10, and Baig had been kidnapped a couple of days ago from Babusar Road by the militants. He said on the show that they had demanded the unconditional release of their men, as they had been previously released in Balochistan and Khyber Pukhtunkhwa. Likewise, they demanded their men must also be released in the Gilgit-Baltistan region as well.
The militants had been detained after they had carried out the Nanga Parbat massacre of 11 foreign climbers at a high-altitude mountaineering camp on June 23, 2013. Dressed as GB Scouts, the killers had approached the climbers’ camp and killed all except two who were a little away from the scene.
The Nanga Parbat incident was followed by more violence by the local Mujahedeen militants.
An SSP was killed as well as two army officers and 19 Shia bus passengers.
Among the killers of the mountaineers was the militant commander Habibur Rehman, who along with two others was later arrested and imprisoned.
However, Habibur Rehman ‘managed to escape two years later and went into hiding for six years after the jailbreak. He returned to public life on July 7, 2021, and held an ‘open court’ at the Babusar polo ground where he demanded the government implement the agreement made two years earlier.
At the same time, the Gilgit-Baltistan government has not exactly rejected Habibur Rehman’s demand but is also indecisive about its implementation – through its spokesperson is reported to have said that with Diamer-Bhasha Dam under construction the people of the region are looking for a more peaceful future.
Ubaidullah Baig made his statements openly in the show and reiterated that the militants, who had taken him hostage had been a branch of the TTP, locally named Mujahedeen Gilgit-Baltistan and Kohistan, but added that the regional government would be continuing talks with local militia groups instead of opting for a military operation against them.
Baig also ‘clarified’ that the militants had not initially known that he was in fact a minister in the Gilgit-Baltistan government.
“The militants had blocked the main Babusar highway, and were stopping vehicles of tourists and local residents from passing through,” he said. Following this, the minister had asked one of the militants to take them to their chief so that he could negotiate with them to reopen the road.
The TTPs demand was to have the members of their militant outfit be released at once, like they have been released in Balochistan and KP, a predicament that the GB Government will have to face during a 10 day ultimatum given by the Taliban.
Colonel Ubaid and the dozens of tourists who were held on the Babusar-Chilas road for several hours on Saturday, October 8, were freed only after they were given assurance that the government would comply with its July 2021 commitment for release. Should it fail to do so it should “expect no mercy” from the militants. The GB Government is expected to implement the agreement at the earliest after successful negotiations with district officials.
The militants had blocked the road in protest over the government not agreeing to release their members who continue to be imprisoned in jails in connection with the killings of foreigners in Nanga Parbat. He said that the militants demanded the government release their men under terms of an agreement negotiated with local elders and religious scholars in 2019 imprisoned in Gilgit-Baltistan and to enforce Shariah law in the region.
The militants also demanded the placement of a ban on women’s sports activities.
“The militants opposed the women’s sports gala but I had told him that the government had changed the event into a women’s fair,” he said.
On September 30, the GB Government had tweeted about the sports event and announced that women would be taking part with great enthusiasm. The Chief Secretary’s Office had announced that “daughters” all over the region were preparing with great “excitement” for the upcoming sports event.
However, by October 4, the GB provincial government changed the upcoming ‘Women’s Sports Gala 2022’ to ‘Women’s Meena Bazaar’ on the directives of the chief minister of Gilgit Baltistan (G-B). Now it announced that “the program would be conducted in accordance with ‘Islamic values and local customs’. Instead of sports, now the event would “include awareness activities, a showcase of projects, exhibition of handicrafts and jewellery and other achievements of women entrepreneurs” as well as “guidance and counselling on environmental and climate change issues” and “educational activities”.
Human rights activists and civil society raised voices against this and said it was equivalent to bowing down in front of the local clergy.
Meanwhile, in Spotlight with Munizae Jahangir, former spokesperson of the GB Government, Faizullah Firaq, said that the negotiations with militants in the province had come after a consensus of local elders, religious scholars, and local residents.
“Gilgit-Baltistan is bordered by Kohistan and Swat districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where the government was holding negotiations with the TTP and other local militants,” Firaq claimed. He said the GB government had not formally inked any agreement with militant groups there but the local elders and religious scholars were holding talks in order for sustainable peace in the region, adding that military operations were not a solution.
These statements come as contradictory to the fact that Operation Zarb-e-Azb carried out in 2014, was a joint military offensive against the very militants who are now rearing their ugly heads again. The attack was carried out to eliminate TTP, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, Al Qaeda, Jundullah and the Haqqani network.
After his election, then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had announced peace negotiations with the Taliban in order to end hostilities. This came about even though previous efforts to engage the Taliban in dialogue had failed. The talks officially began in March 2014, in Islamabad. The Taliban demanded the implementation of Shariah law in Pakistan, while the government upheld that talks be held within the limits of the Constitution of Pakistan. There was a month-long ceasefire.
Previously, negotiations had collapsed when 23 soldiers from the Frontier Corps which had been held since 2010 by the Taliban, were killed in February 2014. There was also a terrorist attack on the Karachi Airport by the Taliban where 28 people were killed.
At that time, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif had announced that there would no tolerance for such terrorism.
“The decision was taken after the strategy of dialogue failed. The operation will continue until it reaches its logical conclusion. Any group that challenges Pakistan’s constitution, attacks civilians, soldiers, and government installations and uses Pakistani territory to plan terrorist attacks will be targeted”.
Therefore, the statement by the senior GB minister who has won on a PTI ticket, which spells out a completely different sentiment by the government is puzzling.
By holding “successful negotiations” with Habibur Rehman the local officials did succeed in securing the release of Col Ubaidul Baig but they also seem to have undermined the national cause of fighting terrorism in that region.
Meanwhile, Pakistan Peoples’ Party leader Qamar Zaman Kaira expressed his concern at the kidnapping incident of Ubaidullah Baig, he did not say anything about the release of the militants from prisons.
The Adviser to PM for Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, Kaira spoke to Voicepk.net and said, “We have brought the situation in Gilgit-Baltistan to the notice of the prime minister,” he said. “The federal government will be holding a meeting on Gilgit-Baltistan in the next few days to discuss measures to maintain the law and order situation there.”
He refused to comment on whether the federal government would be actually considering the release of imprisoned militants as demanded by the militant group that took Colonel Ubaid hostage.
A spectre used to distract people: Baba Jan
Political leader and activist from GB, Baba Jan says that the law and order situation in the territory was indeed alarming, but the GB government was trying to divert the people’s attention from economic woes and poverty by raising the spectre of terrorism in the region.
Baba Jan said the recent hostage incident reflected the weakened writ of the provincial government. “The government in Gilgit-Baltistan was doing nothing to stop terrorism and instead was encouraging the presence of militants there,” he said.
The GB government should focus on internal affairs like reducing poverty and ensuring law and order instead of appeasing militants, Baba Jan pointed out.
Pakistan has seen a surge in attacks by militants in Swat and tribal districts bordering Afghanistan.
On Monday, unidentified militants opened fire at a school van in Swat, leaving the van driver dead and two students injured.
Meanwhile, citizens in Swat have been holding demonstrations against the rising tide of insurgency in the valley. After the attack on the school bus, the sixth such demonstration was held, where locals have demanded peace in the region and an end to militancy.