Baluch protesters walk across Pakistan to spotlight army abuse

ISLAMABAD Thu Feb 27, 2014 11:28am EST

1 of 2. Relatives of people who have gone missing in Pakistan’s restive province of Baluchistan walk towards Islamabad, in Rawalpindi February 27, 2014. Relatives of rebels, activists and ordinary people who have gone missing in a lawless Pakistani province appealed to the United Nations for help on Thursday after a 2,300 km walk from Baluchistan which started last October, to draw attention to their plight.

Credit: Reuters/Faisal Mahmood

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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Relatives of rebels, activists and ordinary people who have gone missing in a lawless Pakistani province appealed to the United Nations for help on Thursday after walking across Pakistan for months to draw attention to their plight.

Bodies of hundreds of pro-independence rebels have been found across the Baluchistan province and many more have gone missing in the past several years, in a little-reported conflict in a remote corner on Pakistan's Iranian border.

Baluch activists say the bodies are evidence that the army is pursuing a systematic 'kill and dump' campaign to crush pro-independence dissent - a charge the army has repeatedly denied.

On Thursday, dozens of those who say their family members were abducted or killed reached Islamabad after a 2,300 km walk from Baluchistan which started last October - a rare act of dissent by the often frightened relatives of the abductees.

Once in Islamabad, the group of about 50 people said they would submit a petition to the United Nations asking for help and to draw attention to their problem.

"Finally we have decided to go to the UN and make our voice heard about the atrocities against the Baluch people who are being picked up and whose bodies are being dumped on a daily basis," said the group's leader, Mama Qadeer Baluch, 72.

The group has made appeals to the UN and other international organizations in the past, but with little progress. Delegations have in recent years visited Baluchistan on fact-finding missions to investigate the claims.

Speaking under a stormy Islamabad sky, he told Reuters his group faced pressure and often abuse from some people they encountered in towns and villages across Pakistan, a testament to broader tensions between the Baluch and other ethnic groups.

"In Punjab, threats and abuses were hurled into our faces," said Baluch, wearing a traditional turban and white robes.

Neither the government nor the army were immediately available for comment on Thursday. But they have always denied allegations of widespread human rights violations in Baluchistan, branding separatists as terrorists and alleging they are backed by Pakistan's nuclear arch-rival India.

The founder of the advocacy group Voice for Baluch Missing Persons, said they set off from Quetta on October 27, 2013 and have been on foot ever since.

Groups of young men wearing air pollution masks to conceal their identities have joined the group from nearby cities to protect it from possible abuse or violence, as the procession reached the outskirts of Islamabad on Thursday.

Recalling an incident in an area called Sarai Alamgir in the district of Gujrat, Baluch said his group was intercepted by a car carrying four men who shouted abuse at them.

"We don't have any hope for the government of Pakistan and its Supreme Court. We have been protesting for the last five years, we have set up protest camps in Karachi, Quetta and visited Islamabad several times," Baluch said.

"But ... the government ... is not listening to us," he added. "When we are not being heard by the government, it is natural that we should knock on the other door."

(Editing by Maria Golovnina and Sofina Mirza-Reid)

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