Households and industry across Pakistan were facing gas shortages on Sunday following a wave of rocket attacks blamed on ethnic militants against pipelines and other natural gas facilities in a remote southern region, officials said.
Thousands of paramilitary and regular troops have been deployed as guards and to hunt for the attackers, who launched a barrage of hundreds of rockets on Tuesday, hitting the state-run gas plant at Sui in Baluchistan province, the principal source of natural gas for Pakistan's 150 million people.
Nearly a week of attacks on gas facilities left at least eight civilians and soldiers dead and 35 others wounded, and raised expectation that the military — already battling al Qaeda militants along its northwestern border with Afghanistan — could launch a major operation in Baluchistan as well.
Tribesmen demanding more gas royalties and jobs for locals often target security forces and the Sui gas facilities, but the attacks dramatically intensified amid anger over the alleged gang-rape of a female doctor earlier this month at a hospital owned by a state gas company.
The Baluchistan Liberation Force, a little-known nationalist group, claimed responsibility for the rocket attacks. The government says it is investigating the rape allegation.
Authorities were forced to close one of the main plants at Sui, which lies about 300 miles northeast of the country's largest city, Karachi.
Gas company officials said that households and industrial facilities in different parts of Pakistan were affected, particularly in southern Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital.
"Definitely, millions of domestic consumers are facing shortage of gas," Inyat Ullah, a spokesman for the Sui Southern Gas Company which supplies Sindh, told The Associated Press.
He said supplies were suspended to dozens of industrial units, including power generators, and textile and cement factories.
Ali Hussain Quereshi, chief engineer at Sui Northern Gas Company, said supplies had also been cut to dozens of industrial users in eastern Punjab province, while domestic consumers were facing gas shortages because of low gas pressure.
Authorities say engineers are working day and night to repair the plant at Sui but that it will take about a week to restore supplies.
Last week, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf warned the military could launch a major operation to crush the rebellion if the attacks on the gas facilities continued in Baluchistan — where there have also been a string of deadly attacks on security forces.
In the 1970s, the army quelled an uprising by an ethnic Baluch group seeking independence, and thousands were killed or captured.
The government, however, says troops deployed so far are just to protect the gas facilities and employees, and to hunt down the attackers. No arrests have been made.
On Sunday, Ataullah Mengal, a Baluch leader who fought the army in 1970s and now heads a small political party, said that the government should not repeat its "past mistake" of using military force.
"We will confront the army with full force if it launches any operation in Baluchistan," he told a news conference in Karachi, adding that locals were angered over the alleged rape of the doctor. He demanded tough action against those responsible.
An army captain, who had been posted to guard the Sui hospital where the doctor works, on Sunday denied media reports that he was involved in the rape, telling Pakistan's private Geo television network that he was ready to face questioning about it.