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Pakistan shuts largest gas field after gunbattle

Pakistani authorities suspended gas supplies from the country's largest gas field after clashes between tribal militants and security forces killed four people, officials said.

The Sui field in the troubled southwestern province of Baluchistan has come under intense rocket attack in recent days from tribal fighters who want more jobs, development funds and higher royalty payments.

The armed tribesmen stormed the gas field, operated by the state-run Pakistan Petroleum Limited (PPL), on Tuesday [11Jan05], overpowering military guards and damaging pipelines and purification plant.

"The compressor of the plant and several pipelines have caught fire," a local police official told Reuters.

A statement from the military's public relations department said the tribesmen had also seized two watch towers. Authorities sent paramilitary troops to the area who drove out the militants and had taken control of the installation.

"The PPL authorities have temporarily shut the gas supply in order to avert more damage," the statement said.

The police official said two military guards were killed while two civilians, including a child, were killed in the crossfire. Five guards were wounded in the gunbattle.

There was no word on militant casualties.

The latest clash came as President Pervez Musharraf warned tribesmen against attacks on gas installations in Baluchistan. "We are watching it with great concern ... I am warning them don't push us," he said in an interview with private Geo television, aired on Tuesday. "They (tribesmen) will not know what has hit them. We will establish the writ of the government and we will eliminate anti-national elements."

More than 200 rockets rained down on Sui on Friday and Saturday and tribesmen again traded rockets and heavy machinegun fire with security forces late on Sunday.

The Sui field's average gas output is about one billion cubic feet (28 million cu metres) per day -- almost 45 percent of the country's total natural gas production.

The area, some 400 km (250 miles) east of the main southwestern city of Quetta, has long been a hotbed of tribal unrest, while other parts of Baluchistan are plagued by attacks from separatist militants.

The tribesmen frequently attack PPL facilities, but recent attacks were notable for their intensity. Electricity supplies to almost half the field had been disrupted and the telephone exchange was wrecked while employees have been fleeing the area.

The insecurity reflects poorly on Pakistan's efforts to win foreign investment for its energy sector and its guarantees of security for a proposed gas pipeline from Iran to India that would have to run through Baluchistan, analysts said.

Editorial Notes: See Asia Times article 'Musharraf blusters as Balochistan boils' By Syed Saleem Shahzad www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/GA13Df01.html for excellent survey of the relevant groupings & tensions in Pakistan. -LJ

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