While years of government neglect caused the antagonism between the state and the local population, a fusion of international actors fuelled the conflict.
The chilling execution of 14 people in Pakistan’s restive southwestern region has once again opened up the fault lines that have pitted hardcore Baloch nationalists against the state for years.
The men killed in the remote Ormara region of Balochistan province were taken off passenger buses travelling between strategically important Gwadar and the country’s largest city of Karachi.
Dozens of gunmen disguised as security officials intercepted the buses and picked out passengers after checking their identification cards, says Zafar Baloch, a local journalist working with The Express Tribune.
“We don’t know the exact identities of the victims. But some of them were government employees,” he told TRT World.
The incident took place in an isolated area dotted with hills which creates a difficult terrain.
“It bears the hallmark of similar attacks where insurgents have run back to the mountains after hitting a target,” Baloch says.
While the government has yet to identify the culprits, a group of ethnic Baloch separatists has claimed responsibility.
The Baloch separatists have in the past launched similar attacks on civilians who come to Balochistan from other parts of the country for work.
In 2015, separatists gunned down 20 labourers from other cities working on a government-funded dam.
Roots of the crisis
Resource-rich Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province by area but the least populated, has been gripped by an insurgency for more than 15 years.
Islamabad has had a testy relationship with Baloch nationalists who complain that locals haven't benefitted from the resources of the province.
For years, natural gas from Sui region in Balochistan fuelled power plants, factories and stoves in homes across Pakistan. But the federal government gave the province a miniscule share of the national budget.
Around 90 percent of the settlements in the province don’t have access to clean drinking water and people there earn less than the national average, according to 2017 study.
The latest round of conflict started in early 2000s as a small group of militants began targeting security forces. The conflict intensified after a tribal leader, Akbar Bugti, was killed in a battle with security forces.
Since then, the demands of some nationalists have morphed from political autonomy to all-out independence.
But the majority of the population does not support the hardliners and continues to back local political parties, which want to use legislature to address day-to-day grievances.
Experts say most of the nationalists had come to believe that they could fight for political rights within Pakistan.
“It was the state’s repressive response that radicalised most elements of the ‘nationalist’ movement,” Frederic Grare, a South Asia security expert, wrote in a report.
Balochistan is also home to the Port of Gwadar, which is run by a Chinese operator. The province features prominently in Beijing’s multi-billion dollar Belt and Road Initiative.
Separatists have targeted Chinese engineers working on different projects and last year even attacked the Chinese consulate in Karachi.
A heavy handed approach by the state, including the Pakistan army’s crackdown, is often blamed for pushing young Baloch towards the separatist groups.
Security forces are accused of killing and dumping the bodies of suspected militants without fair trial. For years, the dead bodies of missing Baloch activists have surfaced in different parts of the province.
Foreign interference, shifting tribal loyalties and the presence of religious extremists have compounded the problem.
In 2016, Pakistan arrested an Indian national, Kulbhushan Jadhav, from the border region between Balochistan and Iran. Islamabad accused him of being an Indian agent who was sent over to work with Baloch insurgents.
Balochistan shares a long porous border with Iran and Afghanistan and Islamabad has accused India on multiple occasions of trying to foment militancy there.
The Pakistani military has also been accused of promoting religious groups to counter the narrative of Baloch nationalists.
Some members of these groups soon joined Daesh and other terrorist organisations, adding fuel to the fire.