Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and his followers bypassed road blocks to press toward Pakistan’s tribal belt yesterday to protest against US drone strikes, defying official warnings.
Khan has led thousands of supporters and dozens of Western peace activists to Dera Ismail Khan, just outside the semi-autonomous area considered a Taliban and al-Qaeda stronghold and often called the most dangerous place on Earth.
Authorities have said they will not be allowed to enter the tribal belt — where missiles fired by US drones routinely target militants — for security reasons and have reportedly blocked the road.
Khan, head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) or “Movement for Justice” party, staged a morning rally at a farm outside Dera Ismail Khan, telling about 1,000 people that the convoy would try to continue into South Waziristan.
He urged activists to remain peaceful and said PTI would seek no confrontation with the authorities.
“We are already successful in our mission,” he told the crowd. “Your voice has reached the world over.”
PTI plans to proceed to the village of Kotkai, notorious as a place where Taliban commander Qari Hussain — said to have been killed by a drone missile in 2010 — used to train suicide bombers.
Islamist militants have killed thousands of people in Pakistan since 2007, and US officials say the drone strikes are a key weapon in the war on terror.
However, peace campaigners condemn them as a breach of international law, and Pakistanis as a violation of the country’s sovereignty that breeds extremism.
Khan, who is campaigning ahead of general elections next year, has made opposition to the drone program a key plank of PTI policy.
Critics accuse him of merely trying to further his own career and of ignoring both atrocities blamed on Islamist militants and abuses by the Pakistani army.
While he is a growing political force, challenging feudal and industrial elites who traditionally dominate in Pakistan, there is huge skepticism about his ability to translate popularity into parliamentary seats.
Kifayetullah, the political commissioner of Dera Ismail Khan who uses one name, said on Saturday that it was “out of the question” that the protesters would be allowed to enter Waziristan.
“Security will be provided to the rally, but roads beyond Dera Ismail Khan will be blocked because there are threats of IED [improvised explosive devices], sniper and bomb attacks. We have to protect the lives of everyone,” he said.
Although leaked US cables have revealed tacit support for the drone strikes from Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders, Islamabad has increasingly condemned the program.
Casualty figures are difficult to obtain, but a report commissioned by Reprieve last month estimated that between 474 and 881 civilians were among between 2,562 and 3,325 people killed by drones in Pakistan between June 2004 and last month.