Are they dead or alive? That’s the question haunting relatives of a group of Pakistani soldiers who were captured four years ago.
When the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, or TTP) announced on February 16 that they had executed 23 members of the Frontier Corps, families of the missing soldiers expected answers. Instead, their questions have multiplied.
In total, 35 Frontier Corps troops were kidnapped in June 2010 in Pakistan's northwestern Mohmand tribal agency, a district of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas that has been a source of militant activity in recent years.
The killings announced this week by the Mohmand branch of the TTP came in response to the extrajudicial killings of militants in recent weeks, and amid efforts by Islamabad to negotiate an end to an insurgency that has left 40,000 dead since 2007.
The Taliban has not revealed the identities of the 23 they claim to have killed, however, leaving relatives of the missing in despair.
Mustafa, whose brother Anwar Shah was among the troops captured in 2010, said the family wants closure.
"Our family is in mourning. Our women and children are crying. If they are really dead, we ask the Taliban to hand over their bodies, even if they have to drop them from a helicopter on the road," Mustafa said. "At least if we get their bodies it will end our mourning."
Dawood Khan's nephew, Rahim Khan, was also among the soldiers captured when TTP militants overran their checkpoint in Mohmand tribal agency on June 17, 2010. He says his nephew's kidnappers have twice contacted the family to set up a meeting. On both occasions the family declined.
Khan has slammed the government for what he sees as its unwillingness to go after the militants and rescue the missing soldiers.
"If a single spent [ammunition] cartridge is lost, the army launches an inquiry," Khan said. "But when 23 soldiers are missing for four years the government doesn't do anything. The government doesn't do anything and doesn't tell us what to do. We don't know where to go."
The militants posted a video message in Pashto this week explaining their reasons for the executions, but the recording did not show the bodies of the soldiers.
It was not immediately clear whether the faction acted with the approval of the TTP's central command. The Pakistani Taliban, an umbrella organization of over a dozen militant groups, is fiercely divided and local commanders have often acted on their own.
Feroz Khan, whose son Zahid Khan was captured during the 2010 operation, says his family is anxiously awaiting news of his fate.
"Yesterday we rushed to the army offices and met with the colonel and he told us the army had no information about the killings," Khan said.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has led the effort for a negotiated peace with the TTP since taking office in 2013, called the purported deaths a "heinous" crime and warned they would impact the reconciliation process that began between Islamabad and the militant group last month.
Meanwhile, government peace negotiators pulled out of scheduled talks on February 17. Negotiators declared the meeting "purposeless" after the "sad and condemnable" killings.
Niamatullah, whose brother Nasim who was among the abducted soldiers, reiterated the feeling of helplessness felt by the families of those missing in action.
"If they were killed, we ask that they hand over their bodies," Niamatullah said. "If not, then we will continue our mourning."
Written by Frud Bezhan based on reporting by Radio Mashaal correspondent Shah Nawaz Khan