MIANWALI, Pakistan — Led by cricket-star-turned-politician Imran Khan, a caravan of demonstrators including more than 30 American anti-war activists embarked on a two-day journey Saturday to Pakistan’s tribal areas to rally against U.S. drone missile strikes in the region.
The caravan had more than 100 vans and cars when it left Islamabad, the capital, and steadily grew in size as it made its way across western Punjab province toward South Waziristan, where demonstrators hoped to stage a rally Sunday.
But, citing safety concerns, the Pakistani government said the caravan would be barred from entering South Waziristan.
The army has control over large sections of South Waziristan after carrying out a major offensive against militant strongholds there in 2009. However, pockets of Pakistani Taliban militants remain. The region is extremely dangerous for Pakistanis and off-limits to foreigners.
South Waziristan is targeted by U.S. drones much less frequently than North Waziristan, home to the Afghan Taliban wing known as the Haqqani network, as well as pockets of al-Qaida militants and other extremist fighters.
Khan had originally hoped to hold his rally in North Waziristan, but moved it because tribesmen in South Waziristan gave their assurances that the participants would be safe. He said he would hold it outside Waziristan if the government prevented the caravan from entering.
Factions of the Pakistani Taliban, the country’s homegrown insurgency, have warned that rally participants could be targeted with suicide bombings and other attacks if they enter the area.
Speaking in Mianwali, a small city 120 miles southwest of Islamabad, Khan told thousands of caravan participants that they would “create a new Pakistan.”
“We are going to tell the people of Waziristan that we did not forget them. We stand with the people of Waziristan as they endure these brutalities by America,” he said.
The rally will focus on the U.S. drone missile program that targets Islamic militants in Pakistan’s tribal region along the Afghan border, a campaign hailed by Washington as an effective tool in combating militancy. It is reviled in Pakistan because it violates the country’s sovereignty and has resulted in scores of civilian deaths.
“It’s our responsibility as good Americans to come here to Pakistan and show the face of the American people that have a conscience,” said Medea Benjamin, a cofounder of Code Pink, a U.S. anti-war group. She said she wanted to show that there were Americans who believed that Pakistani lives are as valuable as American lives.
Many Pakistani observers regard the rally as Khan’s thinly veiled attempt to generate publicity for his campaign to unseat the ruling Pakistan People’s Party in national elections next year.
In a recent editorial, the Pakistani newspaper Dawn wrote that the policy of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, or PTI, was already well-known and that a “made-for-TV” rally would be “at best peripheral to its electoral success.”
“The downsides, however, are very real and potentially serious, for the country if not for PTI,” the editorial said. “South Waziristan is an area no one, not even the most optimistic military official, would claim is anywhere near an acceptable normal.”
(Staff writer Rodriguez reported from Islamabad and special correspondent Khan from Mianwali.)
©2012 Los Angeles Times
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