Clans in the southwestern province of Baluchistan have recently stepped up their fight for increased political rights as well as more royalties and jobs from abundant local natural resources.

Three weeks ago they began raining rockets on the state-run natural gas plant at Sui, leaving eight dead. A nationalist group linked to the tribesmen has also bombed the region's main railway line three times in the past week.

Now the military says it is to clear 500 dwellings from the area around the gas plant, saying the measure will prevent further attacks and protect residents from the devastating consequences of a major explosion.

Eviction

"I am sure the people of these households are gentle and peaceful citizens, but the terrorists who want to damage this installation are using them as shields against our forces," Colonel Muhammad Mujeeb, commander of paramilitary troops in Sui, told journalists allowed to make a rare visit there on Thursday.

Pakistan has so far taken a good-cop, bad-cop approach to the rebels.

Clashes between the army and
rebels killed eight people

The government has held some talks with tribal leaders and has sought to show that it is promoting development in the impoverished province, which borders Afghanistan and Iran.

Police said Friday they had arrested three employees at the gas field - a manager, a chief medical officer and his deputy - for destroying evidence linked to the alleged gang rape of a woman doctor.

The tribesmen say they launched the Sui attacks to protest against the fact that no one was brought to justice over the sex assault claims.

Musharraf warning

Military ruler President Pervez Musharraf warned the rebels shortly after they rocketed the installation: "Don't push us." He also made a pointed reference to a Baluch nationalist uprising that was put down in the 1970s.

Military officials said on Wednesday they would also set up a new garrison to protect Sui. Officials said that up to 800 regular army soldiers and at least 2000 members of the paramilitary forces have been guarding the area since the attacks.

"The area up to 15 kilometers around the installation must be cleared of any civilian population"

Colonel Muhammad Mujeeb

The authorities are now embarking on new ways to safeguard the installation, which produces at least a fifth of Pakistan's natural gas needs.

"It is up to the government to decide the timeframe, but these people who are being taken hostage by the terrorists are to be removed and the area up to 15 kilometres around the installation must be cleared of any civilian population," Mujeeb said.

"The other reason for shifting this population is that if, God forbid, any incident happens to these installations, thousands of people will be burnt to ashes," he said.

Installation attacked

A further reason for the forced eviction was that 700 acres of government land around the gas field has been encroached on and must be vacated.

The 500 houses were built in the 1980s, before the plant constructed a fence to maintain security, according to officials from Pakistan Petroleum Limited, which runs the installation.

Five of the eight people killed during the clashes at Sui were civilians, while about 20 houses and 15 civilian vehicles were damaged. The gas supply was also suspended to millions of homes and hundreds of industrial units.

Journalists at the site saw repaired pipelines and some of the damage caused by the attacks, while hundreds of fragments from rockets and mortar shells still littered the ground.