Sindhi, Baloch ‘separatists’ forming ties in Sindh, Pakistani officials say

Sindhi, Baloch ‘separatists’ forming ties in Sindh, Pakistani officials say
Policemen patrol near the Pakistan Stock Exchange building following an attack by a group of gunmen in Karachi on June 29. (Files/AFP)
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Updated 13 July 2020

Sindhi, Baloch ‘separatists’ forming ties in Sindh, Pakistani officials say

Sindhi, Baloch ‘separatists’ forming ties in Sindh, Pakistani officials say
  • Follows little-known Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army carrying out attacks

KARACHI: Investigations into a spate of recent attacks in southern Sindh province have led Pakistani officials to believe there are growing links between Sindhi separatists and militant groups from the insurgency-racked Balochistan province, officers with knowledge of the investigation have told Arab News.

However, experts warn that it may be too early to assume a “nexus” between the groups.

Late last month, gunmen attacked the Pakistan Stock Exchange building in the city of Karachi, the capital of Sindh, killing two guards and a policeman before security forces killed all four attackers.

Counterterrorism officials said that the attack had been claimed by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), a separatist group from the southwestern province of Balochistan, which has been designated as a terrorist organization by the US and the EU.

Just weeks earlier, three consecutive explosions killed four people, including two soldiers in Sindh. A shadowy secessionist organization, the Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army (SRA), which wants the province to break away from the Pakistani federation, claimed responsibility for the attacks. This week, SRA also claimed a grenade attack on a Karachi bakery in which a retired paramilitary Rangers official was killed. 

SRA and two other Sindhi groups were banned by the government in May this year. 

Speaking to the media after the attack on the stock exchange building,  Sindh Rangers  chief  Major General Omer Ahmed Bukhari said that the attacks proved that “hostile intelligence agencies” were working to forge a “nexus” between Sindhi and Balochi insurgent groups, adding that he believed current investigations would establish this beyond doubt. 

In a statement emailed to the media after the stock exchange attack, the BLA admitted that it had “complete support” from Sindhi groups. 

“Today both the nations (Baloch and Sindhi) are fighting for the independence of their homelands against Pakistan,” the BLA statement said. “We had the complete support of the Sindhi nation in today’s attack, and it shows a strong brotherly bond between both the nations.”

Separatists have been fighting security forces for years in Balochistan over what they see as the unfair exploitation of the province’s vast mineral wealth. Insurgents are also opposed to — and attack projects linked to — China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative in the resource-rich province. 

Pakistan has regularly blamed India for supporting Baloch separatists, a charge that Delhi denies.

Last month, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan told parliament that he had no doubt India was behind the attack on the stock exchange building, which India promptly denied. Khan offered no evidence for his allegation, but he said that there had been intelligence reports warning of attacks in Pakistan and he had informed his Cabinet about the threats.

Sindhi separatists such as the Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army have carried out low-intensity attacks in the past, including blowing up train tracks. Their attacks, however, have been less violent than that of neighboring Balochistan where separatists have attacked a Chinese consulate, a leading hotel chain and on many occasions killed security officials patrolling a coastal highway.

Now, officials fear that Sindhi groups might be able to enhance their capacity to carry our deadlier attacks with help from Baloch militants and other hostile groups. 

“It can be a source of lawlessness in the future if this nexus is not broken,” said a police officer involved in investigating a “possible nexus between Sindhi and Baloch insurgent groups, backed by India.” He requested anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media about the issue.

The police official said that Baloch groups already had “some capability” to launch damaging attacks, “but once there is a nexus, it can also be helpful for Sindhi nationalists, and that’s worrisome.”

A senior intelligence officer, who also declined to be named, said there had been a noticeable increase in the frequency of attacks by Sindhi groups, which pointed to the fact that they might have more experienced helpers.

“Increase in capability (through a nexus with Baloch groups) will only be proved if they launch more sophisticated attacks,” he said. “Law enforcement agencies are absolutely aware and alert to the dangers posed by the growth of this nexus.”

Raja Umar Khattab, a senior counter-terrorism officer in Karachi, said that while teaming up with other groups might enhance the capacity of Sindhi nationalists, he did not see the nexus posing a significant threat in the near future. 

“The nexus can supplement the capacity of Sindhi sub-nationalists,” Khattab said, “but they will not be able to create any big law and order situation due to the preparedness of the law enforcement agencies.”

Sindh’s chief of Rangers has also said that Baloch and Sindh separatists were cosying up to the London faction of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a Pakistani political party whose leader Altaf Hussain lives in exile in London. 

“Hostile intelligence agencies strive to make a nexus of the cells, sleeper cells and facilitators of the remnant terrorist organizations (separatists), which include the remnants of the MQM,” Bukhari said during a press conference after the stock exchange attack.

The MQM, one of Pakistan’s most prominent political parties, is mostly comprised of descendants of Muslim Urdu-speaking people who migrated to Pakistan around the time of the partition of India in 1947. 

Once able to control Sindh province with an iron grip, the party’s fortunes have waned in recent years, particularly since 2013 when the military launched a crackdown against criminal groups and militants as murder rates soared and mutilated bodies were dumped in alleyways daily. Many saw the operation, centered in Karachi, as a pretext to wrest control of the port city from the MQM, an accusation that security forces deny.

While Karachi crime rates have dropped sharply and many local businesses have welcomed the operation, allegations of brutal and illegal methods have remained. 

The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has in the past referred dozens of cases of illegal abductions of MQM workers to the Pakistan government, concluding a “pattern of specific targeting” of the MQM by Rangers, which the paramilitary force denies.

Before the 2013 operation, law enforcement agencies and many Karachi residents accused the MQM of racketeering, the abduction, torture and murder of opponents and holding the city to ransom by calling mass strikes at will.

On Wednesday, the MQM’s Qasim Ali Raza denied that the party had any links to separatists or attacks in Sindh and urged the state to stop the “blind and fraudulent” process of blaming the party. 

The Karachi-based political analyst, Mazhar Abbas, said that a nexus between the MQM and separatist groups, if it existed, would not work. 

“The workers of MQM neither accepted the alliance with Sindhi nationalists (in the past),” he said, “nor will they subscribe to the current idea of a friendship.”

Other analysts said that there was as yet no “solid” evidence to claim the nexus existed. 

“Politically, there has been some closeness between Sindhi and Baloch nationalists, but speaking about a military nexus, one needs to have solid evidence at hand,” said Sohail Sangi, a Karachi-based analyst who closely observes separatist groups.

However, Anwar Sajjadi, a Quetta-based security analyst, said that he believed a growing nexus was a possibility, adding it was no coincidence that Sindhi groups had recently started voicing opposition to Chinese projects being built under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) umbrella, which Baloch groups have long opposed.

“We have seen uniformity in their stances,” Sajjadi said. “Same stance on CPEC and other (rights) issues is bringing all these groups closer.”

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UK’s vaccine approval raises world’s hopes for COVID-19 fight 

Updated 30 min 44 sec ago

UK’s vaccine approval raises world’s hopes for COVID-19 fight 

UK’s vaccine approval raises world’s hopes for COVID-19 fight 
  • Light at the end of the tunnel as Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine wins UK regulatory body’s approval
  • Rollout next week raises hopes of ending pandemic and rebuilding economies by mid-2021

LONDON: The news that Britain has approved the coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer/BioNTech has raised expectations that other countries could also begin immunizations in the near future and slowly bring the curtain down on a pandemic that disrupted the global social and economic order like no other event in living memory.

Trials have shown that the Pfizer/BionTech shot offers 95 percent protection against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), which to date has infected 64 million people worldwide and killed nearly 1.5 million since it first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.

The approval by Britain’s medicines regulator, MHRA, means a mass vaccination campaign could begin in the UK as early as next week, with the first 800,000 doses distributed to the elderly and most vulnerable as a priority. The government has already ordered some 40 million doses — enough to vaccinate 20 million people.

Recipients will be given two injections, spaced 21 days apart, with immunity developing after the first dose. Its full effect kicks in around a week after the second booster. Scientists say the side effects are mild and tend to last no more than a day or two. Pfizer/BioNTech has priced the vaccine at around $19.50 per dose, or $39 per patient.

“With 450 people dying of COVID-19 infection every day in the UK, the benefits of rapid vaccine approval outweigh the potential risks,” Andrew Hill, senior visiting research fellow in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Liverpool, told Reuters news agency.

The messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine itself is truly revolutionary, taking a small fragment of genetic code from COVID-19 to train the body’s immune response to recognize the virus. Until Wednesday, nothing like it had been approved for use in humans.

This announcement came as a huge relief to publics, businesses and governments worldwide after months of lockdown measures, crippling pressure on health services and grinding economic turmoil. It is also expected to calm anxiety and stress as families and individuals forced to remain indoors and separated from loved ones see the first glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

“It’s the protection of vaccines that will ultimately allow us to reclaim our lives and get the economy moving again,” Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, said in his remarks lauding the approval.

Pfizer/BioNTech announced the success of its phase three advanced trials in early November — a remarkable feat given it only began work 10 months ago. Vaccine development can take up to a decade under normal circumstances.

Since then, US pharmaceutical giant Moderna and the UK’s Oxford University/AstraZeneca team have unveiled their own workable vaccines — a reassuring sign that the virus can be fought on multiple fronts.

Although the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is highly effective, it is also expensive, must be stored in special boxes packed in dry ice at -70 C, and can only be kept in a fridge for five days once delivered. For developing countries, the high cost and logistical challenges could prove prohibitive. If more vaccine approvals follow in the coming days and weeks, governments will likely shop around for the best deal.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson wearing a face mask because of the coronavirus pandemic leaves number 10 Downing Street in central London on December 2, 2020, to take part in the Prime Minister Question (PMQs) session in the House of Commons. (AFP)

The Moderna vaccine, which uses the same mRNA model employed by Pfizer/BioNTech, had an equally impressive efficacy rate (95 percent) in phase three trials. Better yet, it is stable at normal refrigerator temperatures of 2-8 C for up to 30 days, and can be stored for months at -20 C.

The Oxford team has found a lower-cost alternative with an average of 70 percent effectiveness but which can be stored at fridge temperature. The vaccine, which adapts a chimpanzee virus that is harmless to humans to train the immune system, may prove a far more practical option for developing countries.

Although this is all positive news, experts have repeatedly cautioned that the world should not expect the pandemic to be fixed overnight. Production, distribution and repairing the economic damage caused by the lockdowns will take several months assuming no new, unforeseeable problems crop up.

“Distribution of the vaccines across the whole of the globe means that there will be a substantial time lag before COVID-19 is truly tamed, with more and greater personal and economic losses along the way,” Dr. John C. Hulsman, president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, said in a recent oped for Arab News.

The UK news has raised expectations that other countries could also begin immunizations in the near future and slowly bring the curtain down on a pandemic that disrupted the global social and economic order like nothing else in living memory. (AFP/File Photo)

“It is estimated it will take until the end of next summer (August or September) before the virus is fully under control and the world can begin to breathe again and return to normal. Even then, humanity will not yet be out of the woods, as it is unclear how long the immunity the vaccines offer will last.”

Several countries, including some in the Middle East, are involved in talks with leading companies and research institutes engaged in various phases of trials. The World Health Organization (WHO), meanwhile, is engaged in preparatory talks with countries on ways to ensure prompt and fair distribution of successful vaccine candidates. 

Many nations, including Arab countries with strong relations with potential producer states, began talks earlier this year with a view to obtaining a vaccine. “I know that most ministries of health have had talks with Moderna and AstraZeneca to book their quantities,” Belal Zuiter, senior consultant at Cambridge Pharma Consultancy in London, told Arab News in August. “I think the Arab world will have enough doses within the first two or three months after a vaccine is produced.”

On Nov. 27, Saudi Pharmaceutical Industries and Medical Appliances Corp. (SPIMACO) signed an agreement with German biopharmaceutical company CureVac to supply and distribute a coronavirus vaccine in the Kingdom. The CureVac vaccine successfully passed the first phase of clinical trials with more than 90 percent effectiveness in early November.

A Saudi and German pharmaceutical deal signed in November includes the possibility of extending the supply and distribution rights to the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman. (AFP/File Photo)

The agreement includes the possibility of extending the supply and distribution rights to the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman.

“Saudi Arabia will be one of the first countries to receive the vaccines,” Abdullah Al-Assiri, assistant deputy minister for preventive health, said during an interview on Saudia TV in early November. Saudi health officials have previously announced plans to offer free vaccinations by the end of 2021 to 70 percent of residents who have not contracted the virus.

Incidentally, several Arab countries were among those that formally expressed their interest in participating in the COVAX facility, described as an “insurance policy” to access COVID-19 vaccines. The mechanism is designed to guarantee rapid, fair and equitable access to the world’s largest and most-diverse vaccine portfolio.

“The idea behind COVAX is just to make sure all countries, whether rich or middle-income or low-income, will be able to access at least enough supplies of the vaccine for priority groups,” Dr. Abdinasir Abubakar, head of Infectious Hazard Management Unit at WHO’s Cairo office, told Arab News earlier.

Once a vaccine has been approved by regulatory agencies and/or prequalified by WHO, the COVAX facility will then purchase these vaccines to try and initially provide doses for an average of 20 percent of each country’s population, focusing on healthcare workers and the most vulnerable groups.

The goal is to deliver 2 billion doses by the end of 2021.

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Twitter: @RobertPEdwards