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The tough road to corridor

The last time this rights campaigner (name withheld on request) went to Gwadar from Quetta in late winter, he found the small port city to have “virtually turned into a military fortress”. The presence of the army and police in the city had significantly been stepped up and a cordon around it established. All but one route had been closed to traffic moving in and out of the city.

“Once there, you get this uneasy feeling of constantly being watched; it was virtually impossible to move around without running into soldiers and police manning the checkpoints set up all over the town,” the rights activist told Dawn in Quetta towards the end of last month.

The massive security arrangements in Gwadar have been made to protect Chinese nationals working on the city’s nearly-complete deepwater port. The port will give China’s north-western region of Xinjiang shortest possible access to markets in the Middle East, Africa and Europe through a network of highways, rail and pipelines being built under the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project.

Although there are reports of a ‘noticeable improvement’ in Balochistan’s security situation which has been wrecked by years of sectarian militancy and Baloch insurgency, the safety of Chinese workers and trade corridor remains overriding concerns for the government.

“Our cities are much safer today than they were a year ago as sectarian and separatist violence has decreased. But it is still a volatile situation,” a senior district administration official said by telephone from Panjgur.

Panjgur is one of the three districts of Makran division; Gwadar and Kech being the other two.

“A low-intensity conflict continues to rage outside major cities, particularly in Makran and Kalat divisions where the Baloch separatists have a presence and where they continue to frequently target security forces, and government employees and installations,” he explained.

The Baloch separatists have expressed their disapproval of the trade route project, terming it a design by the establishment to steal the province’s resources for the benefit of Punjab and China. The rebels have also threatened to attack anyone and everyone who is somehow linked to the development of the corridor.

The military has been assigned the task of securing the trade route and Chinese workers against militant attacks.

Conversation with senior police officials in the provincial capital confirmed that the military, which is raising a special division to protect the route and foreigners working on CPEC-related projects, has considerably enhanced the number of its troops in Gwadar in the recent months as more Chinese workers are expected to arrive over the next few months.

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