Two steps back
Last week proved difficult for Pakistan with Chinese expatriates killed and a Karachi mosque bombed, reports Iffat Idris from Islamabad
For a country striving to shed its image as a haven for extremism and terrorists, last week was disastrous. Two separate incidents of violence, one against foreigners, the other against the Shia minority sect, have set Pakistan's PR efforts back a long way.
The first attack took place on Wednesday 5 May in the port city of Gwador in Baluchistan province. A bomb destroyed a van carrying workers -- mostly Chinese. The bomb, stowed in a parked car, was set off by remote control when the van passed by. Three Chinese engineers were killed in the blast and 11 other people (including nine Chinese) were injured.
The Pakistani authorities wasted no time in condemning the incident and promising to find those responsible. Aside from concern that the attack could further erode international confidence in Pakistan, the government was worried about its impact on its relationship with China. The bilateral friendship between China and Pakistan dates back decades, and is a cornerstone of Pakistani foreign policy and strategic planning.
Unlike the Americans, who have proved fair weather friends, Chinese support for Pakistan has been constant. The Chinese have assisted Pakistan in the acquisition of military technology and arms, in massive infrastructure projects, and in a wealth of commercial and other exchanges. China is also seen by Islamabad as a safeguard against a possible Indian attack. New Delhi, authorities figure, will think twice if Islamabad has the backing of India's powerful neighbour.
The Chinese engineers killed on Monday were working on one massive joint infrastructure project: the construction of a deep-sea port in Gwador. Worth $250 million, the deep-sea project employs over 400 Chinese engineers and construction workers. The first phase is due to be completed in September. This project and others, including a highway to Gwador, have made the city a hub for investment. Small private investors are putting their money into residential plots and apartment buildings in the expectation that Gwador will become a major seaside city. It is uncertain at this time if the bomb blast, or prospects of more, will rock investor confidence enough to undermine this aspiration.
The Chinese government reacted to the assault on its nationals by urging Pakistan to ascertain the cause of the explosion, punish those responsible and take effective measures to guarantee the safety of Chinese workers in the country. But, to Islamabad's huge relief, the Chinese also gave assurances that work on the deep-sea project will continue.
Gwador is situated in Baluchistan, which has always been the poorest and least developed province in Pakistan. The projects underway in Gwador promise to boost that city, but not necessarily the overall socio-economic situation in Baluchistan province. Concerns are already being expressed about the lack of local ownership and involvement in development projects. Jobs, for example, have mostly been contracted to non-locals. This is fuelling resentment. This resentment could be the motive behind Monday's attack, for which no one has yet claimed responsibility.
It could also, though, be political. As well as being Pakistan's most backward province, Baluchistan is also its most conservative. Neighbouring the Northwest Frontier province and Afghanistan, Baluchistan has long been home to the Taliban and others sharing similar ideologies. The assault on the Chinese could be motivated by conservative anger at the Musharraf government's anti-Taliban and pro-US policies.
Police have announced over a dozen arrests, but -- judging by similar announcements after previous incidents -- that does not necessarily mean they have caught those responsible. Gwador was the first assault on Chinese workers in Pakistan, but previous incidents include dozens of sectarian killings. On Friday another such incident took place in Pakistan's port city of Karachi.
This time the target were Shia worshippers in the Hyderi Mosque, part of the Sindh Madressatul Islam premises in Karachi. The method: an apparent suicide bomber who joined the congregation for Friday prayers. Fourteen people were killed in the ensuing blast and many more injured. Eyewitnesses described a scene of carnage, with blood and body parts strewn all over the mosque. Doctors report that 20 people remain in critical condition.
Aftab Sheikh, adviser to the Sindh chief minister, visited the mosque soon after the blast. "It is an act of terrorism in which 14 people were killed. The blast is aimed at destabilising the peace process, investment climate and our efforts to have stable government in Sindh." His last point was a reference to the ethnic Sindhi-Muhajjir violence that has also plagued the province, and particularly Karachi, in recent years.
While the government condemned terrorists, others criticised the authorities. Dawn, the leading English-language newspaper, was scathing in its editorial: "How many attacks must take place for the government to realize that something is missing in its anti-terrorism strategy? One can understand that once, or perhaps twice, a terrorist attack catches the law enforcement agencies off guard, but for them to be caught unawares most of the time is inexcusable and criminal."
Friday's bomb blast in Karachi was the biggest sectarian assault since the March attack on Shias in Quetta. Not surprisingly, the Shia community reacted with anger. Demonstrators took to the streets in protest. On Saturday more people were killed as Shias clashed with police. The Shias insisted that shops observe a two-day shutdown, to mourn and protest the Karachi mosque deaths. Clashes broke out when shopkeepers, many of them Sunni, wanted to stay open.
More sectarian killing and a new terrorist target -- Chinese workers. It was certainly a week Pakistan's spin doctors would rather had not happened.