Imran Khan leads protest against US drone strikes in Pakistan
Thousands of Pakistanis, joined by US anti-war activists, are heading towards a militant-riddled tribal region to protest against US drone strikes despite threats of suicide attacks by the Pakistani Taliban.
The US says its drone strikes are aimed at militants, but Pakistan claims they violate its sovereignty and kill civilians. After an overnight stay, the motorcade led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan departed for the town of Tank near the tribal belt.
In a televised speech, Khan thanked his supporters and the US group, declaring they achieved their goal of sending a message to the world against drone strikes.
Khan said, “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.”
Thousands of supporters came outside Dera Ismail Khan to cheer on Khan and the convoy of supporters and accompanying media, which stretched about nine miles long. They packed into vehicles, waved flags for Khan’s political group and chanted, “We want peace.”
Videos 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.
The key test will be whether Pakistani officials allow Khan and his supporters to enter South Waziristan, one of the country’s tribal areas which border Afghanistan to the west. After three years of military operations in the area, the Pakistani military is still struggling to suppress militants in South Waziristan. Earlier, demonstrators pushed aside shipping containers blocking their way in two cities on the way to South Waziristan, an indication of the size of the crowd and its fervour.
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.
A statement from a Taliban faction, based in Pakistan’s eastern Punjab province, warned that militants would target protesters with suicide bombings. The Pakistani Taliban, based in South Waziristan, issued a statement calling Khan a “slave of the West” and said the militants “don’t need sympathy” from “a secular and liberal person.”
Khan brushed aside the criticism but has indicated that if the group is not allowed into South Waziristan, they will simply hold a rally wherever they end up.
Khan has seen his popularity surge in recent years in Pakistan, where the government, led by the Pakistan People’s Party of Asif Ali Zardari, has disappointed many.
The US says its drone strikes are necessary to battle militants that Pakistan has been unable or unwilling to control.