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Thu Nov 27 16:20:58 SAST 2014

Pakistan drone protest stopped from entering tribal area

Sapa-AFP | 07 October, 2012 15:10
Imran Khan, cricketer-turned-politician and head of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), wears a turban while addressing his supporters as he leads a peace march against U.S. drone strikes from Islamabad to South Waziristan, in Musa Khel, located in the province of Punjab October 6, 2012.
Image by: STRINGER/PAKISTAN / REUTERS

Cricketer turned politician Imran Khan and his followers were Sunday stopped from entering Pakistan's tribal region after they bypassed road blocks to press towards the region to protest against US drone strikes.

Khan defied official warnings and led thousands of supporters and dozens of Western peace activists to Tank, the last town before the semi-autonomous area which is the refuge of heavily armed Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants.

The march passed through Tank but turned back before reaching the border with South Waziristan, said an AFP reporter at the scene.

A spokesman for Khan's party blamed police delaying tactics for the failure to reach Waziristan but insisted the march had achieved its aims.

"Police delayed us for four hours so it was getting late and dark," spokesman Shafqat Mehmood told AFP. "The army told us not to go into Waziristan because lives could be in danger.

"We had already made our point to the international media. Globally our message was conveyed, so we should not go ahead and put lives at risk," Mehmood added.

Authorities earlier said the protesters for security reasons would not be allowed to enter the tribal belt -- where missiles fired by US drones routinely target militants -- and blocked the road to Tank with shipping containers.

But protesters removed the containers, allowing the convoy to approach Tank. Activists scuffled with police at one stage and threw stones at the containers.

Police did not stop the protesters when they removed the containers.

"It's our right to go to our people," said student Fakhruddin Shinwari, accusing the Pakistani government of trying to hide the real situation in the tribal belt.

"There's no security risk. If Imran Khan goes to Waziristan, the situation made up by the United States and Pakistan will be exposed. There are no terrorists there -- it will be shown to be a lie."

There was a heavy security presence along the road to Tank, which a senior police officer had said earlier was not safe and was targeted by roadside bombings.

Khan, who heads the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) or Movement for Justice party, earlier on Sunday urged activists to stay peaceful and to avoid confrontation with the authorities.

"We are already successful in our mission," he told the crowd. "Your voice has reached the world over."

Medea Benjamin, leader of a delegation from the US peace group CodePink, apologised for the drone attacks, saying: "We are so grateful that you understand there are Americans in solidarity with you and against our government policy."

However, the US peace campaigners left the convoy before it reached Tank, with their spokeswoman saying they felt they had achieved their goals.

There were an estimated 15,000 people in the streets of Tank to greet Khan.

The PTI originally planned to go on to the village of Kotkai in South Waziristan, where Taliban commander Qari Hussain -- said to have been killed by a drone missile in 2010 -- used to train suicide bombers.

Clive Stafford Smith, the British head of the legal lobby group Reprieve, said whether the group reached its intended destination was irrelevant.

"It's already a wonderful success," he told reporters. "It doesn't matter what happens from here on. We've generated a huge amount of publicity not just in Pakistan but across the world."

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.

But peace campaigners condemn them as a breach of international law. Pakistanis call them a violation of sovereignty that breeds extremism, and politicians including Khan say the government is complicit in killing its own people.

Casualty figures are difficult to obtain, but a report commissioned by Reprieve estimated last month that 474 to 881 civilians were among 2,562 to 3,325 people killed by drones in Pakistan between June 2004 and September 2012.

Khan, who is campaigning before a general election next year, has made opposition to the drone programme a key plank of PTI policy. Critics accuse him of ignoring atrocities blamed on Islamist militants and abuses by the Pakistani army.

While Khan is a growing political force, challenging feudal and industrial elites who traditionally dominate in Pakistan, there is scepticism about his ability to translate popularity into parliamentary seats.

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