QUETTA, Pakistan (Reuters) - For years, human rights groups had hoped that Western governments might lead an international outcry over a little-known epidemic of abductions, torture and murder in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan. They were disappointed.
Instead, relatives of the missing are placing their faith in a visiting U.N. team to highlight allegations that security forces are waging a campaign of mass disappearances aimed at silencing calls for Baluch independence.
"How many will they kill?" said Yusuf Baluch, who found the mutilated body of his son, Asif, last year, several months after he was taken away in Karachi, Pakistan's commercial capital.
"I'm not going to accept Pakistan as my country. I'll keep longing for an independent Baluchistan."
Overshadowed by a U.S.-funded campaign against Taliban militants on the northwestern frontier with Afghanistan, the conflict between separatists and the state in Baluchistan receives scant outside attention, even within Pakistan itself.
The military has repeatedly denied committing abuses, blaming the killings on an array of militant groups active in the resource-rich province that borders both Afghanistan and Iran.
But human rights groups have gathered extensive evidence from relatives of the disappeared that raises serious questions over the conduct of a security establishment that has received billions of dollars in U.S. military aid since 2001.
The arrival of the U.N. delegation last week kindled hopes in the province that the disappearances will finally start to gain global attention, but stirred controversy in Islamabad, where outside discussion of the province is considered taboo.
"If the U.N. has taken the pains to send a team to Pakistan, it means the world now knows what's going on," said Asif Baluch, a former student activist. "At least the news is out."
The delegation was sent by a panel on enforced disappearances set up by the Geneva-based United Nations Commission on Human Rights and arrived in Pakistan last week.
Led by a French law professor, the team's mission is primarily to gather information on cases of disappearances and serve as a conduit between relatives and the government.
Nevertheless, families of the missing gathered ahead of its arrival in Baluchistan's provincial capital, Quetta, on Saturday to urge the U.N. to take action to bring their loved ones home.
Even as the delegation began its tour of Pakistan, news of more disappearances reached Quetta.
On Wednesday, two days after the U.N. mission arrived in Islamabad, residents in southern Baluchistan said security forces had taken away two more men in vehicles.
Baluch National Voice, a monitoring group, said another 14 men were detained at a military checkpoint on Friday. The bodies of six of them, all bearing gunshot wounds, have since been discovered, the group said. It added that the dead men had been blindfolded and their hands tied behinds their backs.
Parents and siblings of the missing have accused intelligence agencies of abducting people in many parts of Pakistan, but nowhere is the phenomenon more acute than in vast, sparsely populated Baluchistan.
More than 300 bodies have been found discarded by roadsides or abandoned on waste-ground in the province since early 2011, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch. Many of the remains bear cigarette burns, broken limbs or other evidence of torture.
The grim discoveries have generated little public comment from Pakistan's Western allies, who are preoccupied with strategic goals related to the country's role in Afghanistan, counter-terrorism and the security of its nuclear warheads.
But Baluch activists say the grisly trail is evidence of a state-backed "kill-and-dump" policy designed to intimidate separatist guerrillas and their sympathisers.
The activists say several thousand people are still missing, though provincial authorities put the figure at several dozen.
Security forces deny committing abuses and say insurgents sometimes don military uniform before kidnapping people.
"Criminals must be acted against and brought before the law," Major-General Obaidullah Khan, head of the Frontier Corps, the main security agency in Baluchistan, said in a recent interview in Quetta.
Army officers say the separatists have killed hundreds of what are termed "settlers" from other parts of Pakistan, in particular Punjab, the country's most populous province and the home of many of the military's generals.
In Islamabad, the U.N. mission has sparked suspicion among the political and military elite, who are supremely sensitive to any suggestion of interference in Baluchistan.
A region of bone-dry desert and barren hills endowed with reserves of copper, gold and natural gas, Baluchistan has witnessed waves of revolt by nationalists since it was incorporated into Pakistan in 1948.
The government's unease over outside discussion of the province is partly explained by the humiliating loss of East Pakistan, which broke away to form Bangladesh in 1971.
While the Baluch separatists' goal of independence seems a remote prospect, Baluchistan nevertheless exhibits a litany of state failure, alienation, corruption and missed economic opportunities that present a microcosm of Pakistan's wider woes.
Concern among lawmakers that the U.N. visit may threaten Pakistan's sovereignty prompted Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar to assure the National Assembly last week that the team had been invited by the government and had no investigative powers.
Even Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who has launched a rare move by the judiciary to hold the military to account over disappearances in Baluchistan, declined to meet the U.N. team.
He warned this month that the province was a "volcano ready to explode" and said it was dangerous for outsiders to review Pakistan's internal affairs.
The United Nations has declined to comment ahead of a news conference the panel is due to give before leaving Pakistan on Thursday.
Some separatists fear the U.N. mission may allow Pakistan to claim it is addressing the disappearances while failing to put real pressure on the military.
"The U.N. should take very strong action against this state tyranny," Allah Nazar Baloch, leader of the Baluchistan Liberation Front, one of the main separatist armed groups, told Reuters. "The U.N. should impose sanctions on Pakistan."
Others fear that security forces may stage more disappearances to register their anger with the U.N.
"If I know Pakistan, they will send more bodies to send us a message that no one in the world can help us," said a former Baluch student organiser who declined to be identified as he feared for his safety.
Editing by Robert Birsel