QUETTA, Pakistan — Targeted killings happen so often in Pakistan's city of Quetta, they have become almost routine. Assassins drive up, fire a hail of bullets and melt into shadows as their victims bleed to death.
Heading to and from work, or nipping to the shops, fear grips professional men and women in the southwestern province of Baluchistan, where a sharp increase in assassinations is being blamed on separatist rebels.
An upsurge in killings threatens to ignite the southwestern tinder box, with possible consequences for neighbouring Iran and Afghanistan, and heavyweight allies China and the United States.
Last week Nazima Talib became the most high-profile female victim, shot dead at point blank range as she got into a rickshaw to go home after another long day teaching mass communication at Balochistan University.
A mother of one, she was the third member of staff killed in the past two years. Now others wonder whether they will return home at the end of a day's work.
"Gunmen are roaming around killing teachers.... They have left us at the mercy of terrorists. I won't go to the university under these circumstances," said Farkhanda Aurangzaib, a professor in the English department.
Police say sectarian and ethnic targeted killings in Baluchistan have claimed 87 lives and injured 303 people in 168 incidents so far this year.
The killings embarrass the police, who concede that none of the assassins has been arrested, have forced some teachers to flee and fanned insecurity.
Hundreds of people have died since Baluch rebels rose up in 2004 demanding independence and control of profits from natural resources in their region.
Baluchistan, which makes up 40 percent of the country's landmass, is rich in oil and gas -- both desperately needed in energy-starved Pakistan.
For decades, its people have felt excluded or marginalised by the central government and the province has long been a fertile breeding ground for Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militants as well as separatist rebels.
The Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), a banned group fighting for an independent Baluchistan, claimed responsibility for Talib's death, threatened more killings and accused Pakistani security forces of mistreating Baluch women.
The group says its assassinations of Punjabis avenge the deaths of Baluch rebels and civilians at the hands of the military, whose ranks and top brass are dominated by Pakistan's richest and most populous province, Punjab.
Although Pakistan's weak civilian government has sponsored a reconciliation process with Baluch nationalists, it has limited control over the powerful military, blamed for the disappearance of hundreds of Baluch activists.
The surge in violence threatens to torpedo the prospects of political reconciliation, warns Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch.
Targeted killings and disappearances underscore "political breakdown" in Baluchistan with assassinations an "instrument of political warfare," he said.
"It is placing large sections of the non-Baluch population in a state of anxiety and fear and will lead to greater instability and violence in the province," he told AFP.
"It is a rebellion against the Pakistani state but it has regional and international strategic and security implications, and there are many countries that stand to be affected or benefit from development in Baluchistan."
The Chinese have economic investments in the province. Baluchistan shares an extensive border with Iran, which is in turn keen that Pakistan does not become a staging ground for unrest among Iranian Baluch.
Militants crossing to and from Afghanistan also give Kabul and the United States a stake as they wage a nine-year war against the Afghan Taliban.
The militia's one-eyed leader, Mullah Omar, is reported to have carved out a haven in Quetta and its leadership council has been dubbed the Quetta Shura.
The Pakistani military fears that intensifying US-led operations against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan this summer will see militants flee across the border into Baluchistan, posing further problems to law and order.
For those at risk, there is little reprieve. "By living your everyday life you can simply be shot dead and it doesn't matter if you've been in Baluchistan 10, 20 years, half a century or longer," said Hasan.
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