TANK, Pakistan – Cricketer turned politician Imran Khan claimed victory Sunday at the end of his march against US drone strikes, despite failing to reach his intended destination in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Khan defied official warnings to lead thousands of supporters beyond Tank, the last town before the semi-autonomous area which is the refuge of heavily armed Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants.
He had planned to reach the village of Kotkai in South Waziristan, notorious as a place where the Taliban used to train suicide bombers, but turned back before reaching the district border after the army warned it was unsafe to stay in the area after nightfall.
More than 20,000 people thronged the streets of Tank for the final rally, according to police, and wellwishers lined the streets of villages along the route from Islamabad to welcome the convoy as it passed through on its two-day journey.But the turnout at the final rally was well below the 100,000 predicted by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) or Movement for Justice party in the runup to the event, and the vast majority of those taking part in the march appeared to be party activists.
Khan insisted the march — a motorcade that included several thousand vehicles by the end, according to police — was a success.
“We have given our message — it has gone across the world,” he told supporters.
“We have succeeded in raising this issue. We came here to raise this issue, we came here to take a stand against drones.”Authorities had 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, meeting little resistance from police, allowing the convoy to approach Tank. Activists scuffled with police at one point and threw stones at the containers.
The march reached Tank four hours behind schedule, and a PTI spokesman blamed police delaying tactics for the failure to reach Waziristan.
Student Fakhruddin Shinwari accused 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.
Before the march began its second day on Sunday, Khan urged activists to stay peaceful and to avoid confrontation with the authorities.
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.
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.