It seemed increasingly less likely late Saturday that a large group protesting U.S. drone strikes would reach its destination in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal area, where it planned a rally.
ISLAMABAD — Thousands of Pakistanis joined by a group of U.S. anti-war activists headed toward Pakistan’s militant-riddled tribal belt Saturday to protest U.S. drone strikes — even as a Pakistani Taliban faction warned that suicide bombers would stop the demonstration.
The motorcade march was led by Imran Khan, an ex-cricket star-turned-populist politician who heads the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. Militants have dismissed Khan as a tool of the West despite his condemnations of the drone strikes, which have killed many Islamist insurgent leaders.
Pakistanis in small towns and villages along the 250-mile route welcomed the 150-plus vehicle convoy. Footage broadcast on Pakistani TV showed people showering rose petals on the motorcade.
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But by late Saturday, it appeared increasingly less likely the protesters would reach their destination, the South Waziristan tribal area, where they hoped to stage a rally.
Government officials had warned of dangers in South Waziristan, a frequent focus of drone strikes and the scene of a 2009 Pakistani army offensive. Pakistani media reported that authorities used shipping containers to block the main road leading into the region, where access has long been restricted.
In an interview with the private Dunya TV channel, Khan said he had reached another major town on the route, Dera Ismail Khan, and that he would consult his party leaders about the situation. The protesters had planned to stay overnight in the Dera Ismail Khan area before heading to South Waziristan on Sunday.
“We have come here for peace,” Khan said. “I don’t want to put the life of my guests in danger, but I would like to know the level of the threat.”
About 36 Americans from the U.S.-based anti-war group CODEPINK joined Khan for the march. Because foreigners are normally forbidden from entering Pakistan’s tribal regions, it was unclear whether the Westerners would have been allowed in.
The American protesters echoed Pakistani condemnations of the U.S. drone strikes, saying that contrary to the claims of American officials, the strikes have terrorized peaceful tribes living along the Afghan border and killed many innocent civilians — not just Taliban and al-Qaida fighters.
“I’m hoping that what (the protest) will show is that the Pakistani people and American people and even the people in the tribal areas want peace,” said Joe Lombardo, a U.S. activist from Delmar, N.Y.
James Ricks, another American activist, said he was going with the convoy despite the danger. “I am taking this risk because my government is committing international war crimes, and we want to stop this,” said Ricks, of Ithaca, N.Y.
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 the militants “don’t need any sympathy” from such “a secular and liberal person.”
On Saturday, a statement from a Taliban faction said to be based in Pakistan’s eastern Punjab province warned that militants would welcome the protesters with suicide bombings.