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By Gul Yousafzai
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - More than 300 Baloch separatist militants have surrendered over the past few months, Pakistani government officials said, after a ceremony to mark the downing of guns and militants' return to civilian life.
The surrenders are part of government efforts to end a decade-long insurgency in the southwestern Baluchistan province by offering amnesties and financial rewards to soldiers and commanders to help them re-integrate into the society.
In a high-profile ceremony on the lawn of the Baluchistan provincial assembly in the western city of Quetta, the regional capital, some 313 militants from three separatist movements handed over weapons to Nawab Sanaullah Zehri, the Chief Minister of the province.
"I will hug all that who believe in integrity and sovereignty of Pakistan but will not tolerate (those) who will challenge the writ of the State," Zehri said at the ceremony on Saturday.
Pakistani government officials say about 2,000 militants have surrendered over the past 18 months. In April, the government held a similar ceremony where about 400 militants handed over their guns.
The latest ceremony saw surrenders by 143 militants from the Baloch Republican Army (BRA), 125 fighters from the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) and 17 from Baloch Liberation Front (BLF), according to officials.
Under the agreement, foot soldiers are given 500,000 rupees ($4,700) and the top-level commanders receive about 1 million rupees ($9,500) to help them and their families build a life after militancy.
Baluchistan's government and the powerful army, which has a huge say in the running of Pakistan's poorest province, tout the amnesties as an effective way to reduce the power of separatists who accuse Islamabad of exploiting Baluchistan.
While security has improved in Baluchistan over the past few years, critics and human rights groups say the army has crushed dissent and free speech, while separatists accuse security officials of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances. The military denies abuse claims.
Pakistan's desire to dismantle the insurgencies has grown in urgency amid vast Chinese investment from Beijing's Belt and Road infrastructure splurge. China has frequently urged Pakistan to improve security, especially in Baluchistan.
A new transport corridor (CPEC) through Baluchistan, linking Western China with Pakistan's Arabian Sea port of Gwadar, is due to become operational in late 2018.
Separatists have vowed to disrupt CPEC, and earlier this week China warned its citizens of a security threat inside Pakistan.
(Additional reporting by Syed Raza Hassan; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Toby Chopra)