Six footballers in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan remain missing since they were abducted over the weekend in Dera Bugti district as provincial authorities deployed paramilitary forces to rescue the players.
Government officials confirmed to Al Jazeera that unidentified men kidnapped six players, all between the ages of 17 to 23, on Saturday while they were on their way to Sibi town to participate in a local football tournament organised by the provincial government.
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“All efforts are being utilised to recover the abducted sportsmen and law enforcement officials have already launched a search operation in the area and we are expecting a major breakthrough in the next 24 hours,” Jan Achakzai, the interim provincial information minister, told Al Jazeera.
Caretaker Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti also wrote in his message on X, formerly known as Twitter, that paramilitary forces were conducting an operation to bring back the abducted footballers.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the abductions in Balochistan, which has been a hotbed of an armed struggle led by nationalist separatists, and its cities have been a constant target of rebels, as well as armed fighters and sectarian groups.
Families of the missing footballers say that the players were part of a group of 16 to 18 footballers who left on Saturday morning to travel to the town of Sibbi, situated roughly 166km (103 miles) southeast of Quetta, the provincial capital.
‘We are in shock’
“My brother Babar Ali left the home around 9am in the morning, along with a few other players from the area to participate in the football tournament. But within an hour or so later, I was informed that he has been abducted,” Ali’s elder brother Allah Ditta told Al Jazeera.
Ditta, 30, who is a police constable himself, says his brother Ali was a very good footballer and was very excited about the tournament, and added that authorities informed the families that they have launched a recovery operation.
“He was just talking to me about going to perform in the tournament. Now we are all just in shock and don’t know what will happen. We don’t know who will help us out. When a tragedy like this happens, you just don’t know what can you do,” he added.
Ameer Bux, a resident of Sui in Dera Bugti district, said his 23-year-old son Muhammad Yasir was among the missing sportsmen.
“Yasir was a great footballer, and he was always willing to participate in football competitions. He ran a mobile shop but would often skip work so he could play the sport he loved so much,” Bux, a government employee, told Al Jazeera.
Bux says he was at his shop on Saturday when he was informed about the abduction by his other sons, but nobody has so far claimed any responsibility or made any demands regarding the kidnapped footballers.
The news is difficult for the family to handle given that Bux’s wife suffers from a neurological disorder while his father has a heart problem.
“Yasir is very close to my father, who is an octogenarian and has a heart problem. He has been asking me for two days where my son is but I am just lying that he is travelling for football,” Bux said.
“How long can I keep this facade up? We are just losing hope with every passing hour. I spend all night on the prayer mat. I avoid seeing my wife or else I will just break down myself. Our only hope is a miracle from God.”
The resource-rich province of Balochistan, bordering Iran and Afghanistan, has vast reserves of copper, zinc and natural gas reserves but it remains the country’s most impoverished province.
Additional reporting by Saadullah Akhter from Quetta