By Ishtiaq Mahsud
The Pakistani military blocked a convoy carrying thousands of Pakistanis and a small contingent of US anti-war activists from entering a lawless tribal region along the border with Afghanistan on Sunday to protest American drone strikes.
The group, led by cricket star turned politician Imran Khan and his political party, was turned back just miles from the border of South Waziristan. After an hour of fruitless negotiations, Khan announced that the caravan would backtrack to the city of Tank, about 15km away. There, he delivered a speech to the crowd of about 10,000.
Khan has harshly criticised the Pakistani government's cooperation with Washington in the fight against Islamist militants. He has been especially outspoken against US drone strikes targeting militants and has argued that Islamabad's alliance with Washington is the main reason Pakistan is facing a homegrown Taliban insurgency. He has suggested before that militant activity in Pakistan's tribal areas will dissipate when the US ends the war across the border in Afghanistan.
"We want to give a message to America that the more you carry out drone attacks, the more people will hate you," Khan told the crowd.
The anti-American sentiment, always high in Pakistan, was evident in the crowd that waved banners saying "Down with America", and "The friend of America is the traitor of the nation".
Pakistan's tribal regions, such as North and South Waziristan, border Afghanistan and serve as bases for militant groups such as the Taliban to stage raids across the border into Afghanistan.
The protest convoy of about 150 cars set out on Saturday from the capital Islamabad, travelled 400km and then stopped overnight in the city of Dera Ismail Khan. The plan for the second and final day was to travel another 120km to reach Kotkai in South Waziristan. But the military stopped the convoy in the town of Kawar.
Khan told the rally that they wanted to continue their journey to Kotkai, but the army said it was too late, and going inside South Waziristan at night was dangerous. Khan said he didn't want to put his supporters in danger, so he turned the rally around to Tank.
A spokesman for Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Umar Younus, said the army stopped the convoy at a checkpoint and despite insistence by PTI leaders they would not allow the convoy to go any farther.
Regardless of whether he was able to enter the tribal region, Khan portrayed the two-day motorcade as a success.
"We have taken the voice of the people of Waziristan to the world," he said.
Thousands of supporters had turned out along the route to cheer on the convoy, which stretched about 15km, including accompanying media. Some of those packed into the vehicles waved flags for Khan's political group and chanted: "We want peace."
Video 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.
Around three dozen Americans from the US-based anti-war group CODEPINK joined Khan for the march. The American protesters say the US drone strikes, contrary to the claims of American officials, have terrorised peaceful tribes living along the border and killed many innocent civilians - not just Taliban and al-Qaida fighters.
The convoy aimed to throw a spotlight on the drone attacks, which many Pakistanis oppose as violations of the country's sovereignty that often kill civilians. The US says its drone strikes are necessary to battle militants that Pakistan has been unable or unwilling to control.
Critics denounced the rally as a piece of cheap theatre designed to drum up votes for Khan's political party ahead of next year's elections.
"A made-for-TV dog and pony show that will be high on drama and low on substance will resonate with Khan's base," wrote Pakistani newspaper columnist Cyril Almeida in the English-language newspaper Dawn Sunday.
The rally was originally intended for South Waziristan, a tribal region where the Pakistani military has been battling a violent uprising by the Taliban, and factions of the Taliban threatened to attack the march. On Saturday, a statement from a Taliban faction said to be based in eastern Punjab province warned that militants would target the protesters with suicide bombings.
The main faction of the Pakistani Taliban, which is based in South Waziristan, issued a statement Friday calling Khan a "slave of the West" and saying that the militants "don't need any sympathy" from such "a secular and liberal person".
The former cricket star long had a reputation as a playboy, but in recent years he has said he has grown stronger in his Muslim faith. He also has used attacks on the US drone program as a means of gaining attention and esteem in Pakistan. His popularity surged in recent years in Pakistan, where the government, led by the Pakistan People's Party of Asif Ali Zardari, has disappointed many.
In the capital of Islamabad, the US Embassy warned its citizens about possible terrorist attacks Sunday in the city on key government installations and major hotels such as the Marriott and the Serena. The embassy said Pakistan's Interior Ministry had issued an alert about the threats, and urged American citizens to avoid these areas.
The US government already advises its citizens to avoid non-essential travel to Pakistan, citing the threat of militant groups as well as protests such as the violent ones that shook the country earlier this month against an anti-Islam film made in the US
The film has outraged Muslims around the world for its vulgar portrayal of Islam's Prophet Muhammed, and protests in Pakistan have been especially intense. About 2,000 supporters of the hardline Jamaat-e-Islami party rallied in the southern port city of Karachi Sunday against the film.