Imran Khan sets off on Pakistan rally against US drone attacks
Peace convoy protesting about America's use of missiles in war on terror heads for Pakistan's tribal belt despite reported Taliban threat of attacks
Cricket star turned politician Imran Khan led supporters and Western activists on a much-publicised rally to Pakistan's tribal belt yesterday to protest against US drone strikes - even as a Pakistani Taliban faction warned suicide bombers would stop the demonstration.
Khan and his Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) or Movement for Justice party, along with British and US activists, set off from Islamabad in a giant convoy to drive around 440 kilometres to South Waziristan.
The authorities say the Taliban intends to attack the rally and that foreigners will not be allowed to enter the tribal belt on the Afghan border, considered a Taliban and al-Qaeda stronghold, making it unclear how far they will get.
Missiles fired by US drones routinely target militants in the semi-autonomous area. Peace campaigners condemn the strikes as a violation of international law. Pakistanis say they are a violation of sovereignty that breeds extremism. Politicians, including Khan, say the strikes are a sign of a government complicit in killing its own people.
"This is a peace march, an effort for peace in Pakistan on our part ... We are not going to fight anyone," Khan said as the motorcade of about 150 vehicles set off.
Khan, who has regularly condemned the US-led war on terror, says he wants to show the world the damage inflicted on innocent people by the drone campaign. "The collateral damage - people's women and children getting killed - have created militants and multiplied militants," he said.
"This is the only time ever in history that a country has been bombed by its own ally."
But critics accuse the former cricketer of blatant electioneering ahead of polls next year and of ignoring both atrocities blamed on Islamist militants and abuses by the Pakistani army.
Over the last year, Khan has become a growing force in politics, but there is scepticism about his ability to translate popularity into seats.
At Balkassar toll plaza near Chakwal, hundreds of supporters carrying green and red PTI banners gathered in hot sunshine to welcome Khan and the convoy of around jeeps, buses and cars.
Party workers in "Cornered Tigers" T-shirts - a reference to Khan's inspirational talk to Pakistan before their 1992 World Cup victory - formed a human chain round his 4x4 to clear a path through media and wellwishers.
Akhtar Syal, 63, from Sarghoda in Punjab, said drones were destroying lives.
"It's a great thing Imran Khan has raised his voice against it, so I'm going to make his voice stronger in this noble cause," he said. "I am ready to die over there. If our brothers are being killed I will happily accept it."
Khan was accompanied by anti-drone campaigners from the US-based anti-war group Code Pink and the British head of the legal lobby organisation Reprieve, Clive Stafford Smith.
The PTI plan to spend the night in the town of Dera Ismail Khan and continue to Kotkai village in South Waziristan today to hold a demonstration.
A Taliban faction said to be based in Pakistan's eastern Punjab province warned that militants would welcome the protesters with suicide bombings.
"We ask the brave people of Waziristan not to side with the gang of Jews and Christians - otherwise their fate will be terrible," the Punjabi Taliban said.
Additional reporting by Associated Press