Quetta: The shadow of the banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and "death squads" looms large over the election process in Pakistan`s Balochistan province but those most at threat are not even willing to name the forces that have virtually squeezed them out of the campaign.
With just a week to go till the landmark May 11 general election that will mark the first democratic transition of power in Pakistan`s history, leaders of several parties in gas and mineral-rich Balochistan today said they have been forced to severely limit their campaign because of threats.
Ruqayya Saeed Hashmi, a PML-Q leader and a member of the minority Hazara community, said she had been receiving threats for the past few days because she is "a woman and a Shia" contesting polls to a parliamentary seat in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan.
Hazara Democratic Party general secretary Abdul Khaliq Hazara said his campaign had been limited to a few Hazara-dominated areas of Quetta, and that he was unable to woo ethnic Baloch, Punjabi and Pashtun voters.
"I narrowly escaped a bomb attack that occurred minutes after I addressed a street corner meeting on April 23. We are campaigning under the shadow of terror," Hazara told a group of foreign journalists visiting Quetta.
For the first time in years, the two Indian journalists posted in Pakistan were allowed to visit Balochistan.
Both Hashmi and Hazara were reluctant to name the elements threatening them and their election campaigns.
"I have been getting threatening letters and messages for the past two to three days. I am not going to mention who is behind these threats, it`s not advisable for me to name them," said Hashmi.
"But everybody knows who`s behind these threats," she said.
Hazara said there was a "banned organisation" that had claimed responsibility for killing hundreds of members of his community.
Earlier this year, the LeJ, a notorious anti-Shia group
with links to al-Qaeda, claimed two devastating bomb attacks in Hazara neighbourhoods of Quetta that killed nearly 200 and injured dozens more.
After the first attack, Hazaras protested with over 80 bodies for days, triggering demonstrations across the country and forcing the federal government to sack the provincial administration.
Leaders of the Balochistan National Party-Mengal led by Sardar Akhtar Mengal who recently ended years of self-exile to return to Pakistan said they were threatened by "death squads" that were systematically targeting candidates.
"The intimidation is increasing day by day and we are getting zero relief from the authorities even though we have taken up the issue with the Supreme Court and the federal government," said Jahan Zeb, senior vice-president of the BNP-M.
"Even international election observers not coming to Balochistan because of the security situation".
Though the BNP-M leaders were reluctant to name who was behind the death squads, sources said they comprised members of other Baloch groups considered to be close to the security establishment.
For decades, Baloch groups and parties have complained about the neglect of the southwestern province that accounts for almost half the territory of Pakistan but has a sparse population.
Balochistan has only three million out of the 80.72 million voters registered for the upcoming polls and the political leaders said they feared the turnout on election day could be low.
Despite the threats and other problems, the Baloch politicians said they were determined to participate in the polls and to ensure that their supporters showed up at polling stations on May 11.
"We are fighting a war, not an election. Our houses are not safe, our workers and leaders are targeted every day and the people may not come out on polling day.
But we cannot keep away from the democratic process," said Niyamatullah Gichki, a senior leader of the National Party.
"We must continue fighting this war to achieve democracy," he said.