Thousands of anti-government protesters demanded that Pakistan shut the route along which supplies are ferried to US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, adding to the growing pressure on Islamabad’s beleaguered leadership.
The demonstration Thursday by more than 10,000 people in the northwestern city of Peshawar also focused on a recent series of US missile strikes against suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas along the Afghan border and Pakistani military offensives against Islamic insurgents in the area.
Leaders of the demonstration drew links between the missile attacks and the supply line, saying the equipment was being used for attacks on Pakistani soil and vowing to shut down the convoys.
“We will no longer let arms and ammunition pass through ... and reach the hands of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan,” Sirajul Haq, the provincial head of hardline Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, told the crowd. “They are using the same against our innocent brothers, sisters and children.”
The supply line — along which gear passes from the Pakistani port city of Karachi and through the Khyber Pass — has increasingly come under assault, leading US and NATO forces to scout possible alternative routes.
Hundreds of vehicles, including Humvees allocated for the Afghan army, have been torched in recent weeks in arson attacks on terminals, leaving several security guards dead. The convoys also are targets in Afghanistan, despite armed escorts.
But US Department of Defense spokesman Bryan Whitman said on Thursday that convoys continue to flow along the route at the rate of about 150 trucks a day.
“It continues to be a viable supply route. That said, we are looking at ways not only to improve the security along that route but other alternatives to it,” he said.
The protest ratchets up pressure on the new government at a time when it is also dealing with a tanking economy and the fallout over the Mumbai terror attacks that killed more than 160 people.
Pakistan’s main stock market index plunged to its lowest level in more than three years on Thursday, as tensions with New Delhi appeared to be rising. India ordered cricket officials to cancel next month’s scheduled tour of Pakistan — a blow to the sport, which had been used to help with rapprochement between the two countries.
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