Pakistani security forces have prevented a convoy protesting American drone strikes, headed by opposition politician Imran Khan, from entering a lawless tribal region along the border with Afghanistan.
The convoy of at least 10,000, which also included American members of the U.S.-based Code Pink antiwar group, was stopped by hundreds of security personnel just miles from the border of South Waziristan. The region is a hotbed for Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants.
After an hour of fruitless negotiations, Khan announced that the rally would return to the city of Tank, about 15 kilometers away, where he was expected to make a speech to the crowd.
Speaking earlier to a crowd in Tank, Khan said the rally would not force its way into South Waziristan.
"We want to reach Kotkai but we don’t want to fight with the administration because it is a peace march. We have already succeeded in our mission," Khan said.
"The whole world has heard your voice. Most of the international media organizations have condemned drone attacks. Our rulers could not send the message over the drones but the world has heard from us."
Pakistani officials have warned that Islamist militants, who have questioned Khan’s motives, may attack the procession.
The main faction of the Pakistani Taliban, which is based in South Waziristan, issued a statement on October 5 calling Khan a "slave of the West" and saying that the militants "don't need any sympathy" from such "a secular and liberal person."
Concerns Of Attacks
There were concerns the presence of foreigners in the tribal region could cause the march to be targeted by Islamist militants, although Khan has dismissed such speculation.
Khan, head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (Movement for Justice), is among Pakistanis who allege that U.S. drone strikes have killed large numbers of innocent civilians and that the campaign should be halted.
A report released in the West last month estimates that between 474 and 881 civilians have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan in the past eight years.
U.S. officials maintain that the drone strikes are a valuable tool in the battle against extremists in the Pakistani-Afghan border zone. American officials say the strikes are very precise and that the majority of those killed by the missiles are Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants.
'Illegal And Immoral'
The head of the British rights organization Reprieve and antidrone campaigners from the U.S. group Code Pink are among the foreigners participating in the rally.
A day earlier, dozens of American and British protesters staged an antidrone demonstration in Islamabad, calling the strikes illegal and immoral.
The Pakistani government has said it supports the U.S. goal of countering militants in the border zone, but disagrees with the drone strikes, calling them illegal and a violation of Pakistani sovereignty.
Still, a number of officials expressed skepticism that Khan's high-profile rally would help reduce the number of drone attacks.
Akhunzada Chattan, a lawmaker from the Bajaur Agency in the far north of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, called on Khan to show restraint and concentrate on issues like education that could improve the lives of ordinary residents.
"I request that Imran Khan and the country’s other politicians should come to our tribal areas with a message of peace and message of education," Chattan said. "They should not ignite the flames and encourage people further towards war. They can come with a jirga (assembly of elders) and ask those who are destroying our schools and stopping girls from attending school to stop these activities, so that tribal people can stand in line with the progressive nations of the world."
Others have criticized Khan, who is seeking Pakistan's presidency in 2013, of using the protest as a campaign stunt.
Bushra Gaohar, a lawmaker with the Awami National Party, accused Khan of colluding with the Taliban to boost his political standing at the expense of ordinary residents in the tribal areas.
"Imran Khan is a Taliban supporter and he does all these activities with the Taliban’s help," Gaohar said. "[His rally] will benefit the Taliban, terrorists, and those who have destroyed the tribal people’s lives by hijacking them. I look at [the rally] as political gimmickry, and this will not benefit tribal people in any way, shape, or form."
In South Waziristan, residents like Badam Gul were likewise doubtful the much-publicized rally would bring much good.
"In the current situation, we do not care who is coming, whether it is Imran Khan or someone else. It is nonsense," Gul said. "We need a cure for our wounds. We do not have any hope. There is no one who has listened to us or will really hear our problems."
Haji Muhammad Maehsud, an elder with South Waziristan's Mehsud tribe, echoed the sentiment.
"Imran Khan's rally will bring no benefit to the people of Waziristan," Maehsud said. "He can benefit from this rally politically, but it does not bring anything good for our people in the Mehsud tribe."
With agency reports