Pakistan minister gives missing persons assurance

Pakistani women carry photographs of missing ethnic Balochs as they march towards Karachi from Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan Province, on November 21, 2013

Pakistan's new defence minister Thursday vowed to solve within weeks the controversial issue of "missing persons" from the southwestern province of Baluchistan who are allegedly held by the security services. Khawja Asif told reporters after a Supreme Court hearing in Karachi that 738 missing persons had been located and others would be found soon. The court has been investigating cases of missing people in Baluchistan, where the military and intelligence agencies have been accused of rights violations in their bid to end a separatist insurgency. Asif's comments came just a day after he was appointed defence minister and are a rare intervention from a senior government figure on a sensitive topic -- the security services are often deemed untouchable in Pakistan. "This (recovery of missing persons) is our responsibility and now it would not take years or months but it is a matter of few weeks," he said. Baluchistan, Pakistan's least developed province, is in the grip of a separatist insurgency and rebels regularly attack security forces. Rights groups accuse the military and intelligence agencies of kidnapping and killing suspected Baluch rebels before leaving their bodies by the roadside. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 300 people have suffered this fate -- known as "kill and dump" -- in Baluchistan since January 2011. Last year the Supreme Court quizzed lawyers for the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) over missing persons in the province, a rare challenge to Pakistan's powerful spy agency. After the hearing, Asif visited a group of families of the missing who are camped in protest outside Karachi press club, having marched a gruelling 700 kilometres from the Baluchistan capital Quetta. Around two dozen women walked for nearly a month to seek justice for brothers, sons and husbands who have disappeared.