Pakistan convoy heads to protest US drone strikes

Associated Press
Pakistan's ex-cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan, top left, addresses supporters during a peace march in Mianwali, Pakistan, Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012. Thousands of Pakistanis joined by a group of U.S. anti-war activists headed toward Pakistan's militant-riddled tribal belt Saturday to protest U.S. drone strikes - even as a Pakistani Taliban faction warned that suicide bombers would stop the demonstration. (AP Photo/Jabbar Ahmed)
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ISLAMABAD (AP) — A convoy carrying thousands of Pakistani protesters and a small contingent of U.S. anti-war activists rolled toward Pakistan's volatile tribal region for a second day on Sunday, planning to stage a demonstration against American drone strikes despite Taliban threats to attack the gathering.

The rally is led by cricket star turned politician Imran Khan and his political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. Khan has harshly criticized the Pakistani government's cooperation with Washington in the fight against Islamist militants. He has been especially outspoken against U.S. drone strikes targeting militants and has argued that the country's alliance with Washington is the main reason Pakistan is facing a homegrown Taliban insurgency. He has suggested before that militant activity in Pakistan's tribal areas will dissipate when the U.S. ends the war across the border in Afghanistan.

Pakistan's tribal regions, such as North and South Waziristan, border Afghanistan and serve as bases for militant groups such as the Taliban to stage raids across the border into Afghanistan.

The protest convoy of about 150 cars set out on Saturday from the capital Islamabad, traveled 400 kilometers (250 miles) and then stopped overnight in the city of Dera Ismail Khan. The plan for the second and final day was to travel another 120 km (70 miles) to reach Kotkai in South Waziristan by early afternoon and stage a rally there. But the motorcade was running hours behind schedule.

Thousands of supporters have turned out along the route to cheer on the convoy, which stretches about 15 kilometers (9 miles) including accompanying media. Some of those packed into the vehicles waved flags for Khan's political group and chanted: "We want peace." Video on Pakistani media showed barricades with hundreds of police in riot gear, a sign of concerns that the motorcade would be attacked or become unruly.

Around three dozen Americans from the U.S.-based anti-war group CODEPINK joined Khan for the march. Because foreigners are normally forbidden from entering Pakistan's tribal regions, it was unclear whether they would be allowed in. The American protesters say the U.S. drone strikes, contrary to the claims of American officials, have terrorized peaceful tribes living along the border and killed many innocent civilians — not just Taliban and al-Qaida fighters.

In a televised speech before the convoy got under way Sunday morning, Khan thanked his supporters and the U.S. group.

"We have achieved the goal of this march. Our message of peace has reached the world. I am thankful especially to the American group that came a long way here to join this protest against drone attacks," he said.

The convoy aims to throw a spotlight on the drone attacks, which many Pakistanis oppose as violations of the country's sovereignty that often kill civilians.

The rally is planned for South Waziristan, a tribal region where the Pakistani military has been battling a violent uprising by the Taliban, and factions of the Taliban have threatened to attack the march. On Saturday, a statement from a Taliban faction said to be based in eastern Punjab province warned that militants would target the protesters with suicide bombings.

The main faction of the Pakistani Taliban, which is based in South Waziristan, issued a statement Friday calling Khan a "slave of the West" and saying that the militants "don't need any sympathy" from such "a secular and liberal person."

The former cricket star long had a reputation as a playboy, but in recent years he has said he has grown stronger in his Muslim faith. He also has used attacks on the U.S. drone program as a means of gaining attention and esteem in Pakistan. His popularity surged in recent years in Pakistan, where the government, led by the Pakistan People's Party of Asif Ali Zardari, has disappointed many.

The key test will be whether Pakistani officials allow Khan and his supporters to enter South Waziristan. After three years of military operations in the area, the Pakistani military is still struggling to suppress militants in South Waziristan.

Demonstrators Sunday pushed aside shipping containers blocking their way in two cities on the way to South Waziristan.

A senior official in the South Waziristan administration, Hameedullah Khattak, vowed that the motorcade would not be allowed to enter the tribal area, citing security concerns.

"We will not let them in South Waziristan for security reasons. Here is major security situation and we cannot provide them security," he said.

Khan brushed aside the criticism on Saturday but has indicated that if the group is not allowed into South Waziristan, they will simply hold a rally wherever they end up.

The U.S. says its drone strikes are necessary to battle militants that Pakistan has been unable or unwilling to control.

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