The most senior elected official in a restive Pakistani province suffering from a simmering separatist insurgency has claimed that government-sponsored militias, locally called 'death squads' for their kidnapping and killing of nationalist activists, are no longer active.
But rights campaigners in Balochistan say gangs mostly made up of criminals or strongmen still engage in kidnappings and extrajudicial killings with impunity. Most victims of such violence are Baluch separatists, some of whom are part of decade-old insurgency in the region.
In an interview last week, Abdul Malik Baloch, the chief minister of Balochistan, said such groups are no longer active in his resource-rich province.
"I think what we had known as the 'death squads' or 'counterinsurgency forces' had a major [negative] influence on the law-and-order situation in Balochistan," he told the BBC's Urdu service. "[After assuming office in 2013,] we talked to the military hierarchy about this, and they changed their policy [of supporting such groups]. This immediately resulted in bringing peace to most [restive] districts of Balochistan."
Malik Baloch, the leader of a moderate Baluch ethno-nationalist party, even warned that such gangs are ultimately counterproductive.
"I think it will be very unfortunate to reactivate these groups," he said. "It was very important to put a leash on these death squads to bring peace here. Now if these are reactivated there will be a lot of noise [and complaints about their abuses]."
But human rights activists in Balochistan tell a different story. Tahir Hussain Khan, head of the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), says the chief minister should not have made such "irresponsible" claims.
"If they have made any arrests, they should be brought to the public's notice," he told RFE/RL's Gandhara website. "They [the death squads] still exist; maybe they have been weakened, but they still exist."
Activists say that apart from anti-Baluch nationalist militias, anti-Shia Sunni extremists, the Afghan Taliban, and Pakistani Islamist militants have operated freely in Balochistan. In some cases, Islamist militants have confronted secular Baluch separatist guerillas.
"There were many forms of these death squads, and all were government-sponsored," Khan noted. "[If these groups are dismantled,] it will go a long way toward ending the fear and uncertainty among people here."
Khan said the government didn't allow the HRCP to visit a remote village in central Balochistan's Khuzdar district after mass graves were discovered there in January 2014. The decomposing bodies of 17 civilians were discovered in three graves in Tootak. Baluch activists blamed a pro-government death squad for the killings.
Nasrullah Baloch heads the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, an activist organization that works to demand the release of thousands of victims of enforced disappearances in Balochistan.
He too rejected Malik Baloch's claim and said most such groups are still active with the backing of Pakistan's powerful security establishment -- a euphemism for the army and its intelligence agencies.
"In most districts of Balochistan, these groups are active. Some of the people who were previously involved in such activities have been replaced with new faces," he told RFE/RL's Gandhara. "This is because the old ones were well-known and their activities attracted domestic scrutiny and international criticism."
Nasrullah Baloch says that in some remote districts of Balochistan, new groups have emerged, and sometimes such activities are subcontracted to local strongmen.
"People involved in such groups are ethnic Baluch, and they typically become rich after joining such gangs," he said. "All is aimed at preventing the Baluch [separatists] from campaigning."
But most Baluch figures accused of being part of the so-called death squads see their activities as part of efforts to foil foreign conspiracies against Pakistan.
Shafiq-ur Rehman Mengal, commonly known as Shafiq Mengal, is perhaps the most well-known figure associated with the alleged death squads in Balochistan.
He said his Haqna Tawar or The Voice of Righteousness group aims to stop "the game being played in Balochistan at the behest of foreign powers."
In an interview in 2013, Mengal denied being part of any death squad but said he sees his role as part of an effort to counter Baluch ethno-nationalist tribal leaders, guerilla commanders, and politicians who in his view play into the hands of foreign government and spy services.
"All such accusations against me are not true. All the feudal [separatist leaders] have always tried to malign people who dared to oppose them," he said. "I don't have any support from the military and its intelligence agencies."
Mengal, however, was named the main suspect behind the Tootak mass graves in Balochistan. The brother of one of the victims accused Mengal of kidnapping his brother.
Although a government-appointed judicial commission absolved the Pakistani security forces of being responsible for the crime, observers in Balochistan say the controversy led authorities to force Mengal into adopting a low profile.
In its annual report this year, global human rights watchdog Human Rights Watch concluded that the human rights situation in Balochistan remains abysmal.
"Enforced disappearances linked to the security forces continued with impunity," the report noted. "Pakistan's government has failed to meet its obligations under the constitution and international law prohibiting enforced disappearances."