Imran Khan leads anti-drone protest

2012-10-06 11:27
Drone. (Eric Gay, AP)

Drone. (Eric Gay, AP)

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Islamabad - Pakistani cricket star turned politician Imran Khan led supporters and Western activists on a much-publicised rally to Pakistan's tribal belt on Saturday to protest against US drone strikes.

Khan and his Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) or Movement for Justice party, along with British and US activists, set off from Islamabad in a giant convoy to drive around 440km to South Waziristan.

Authorities say the Taliban intend to attack the rally and foreigners will not be allowed to enter the tribal belt on the Afghan border, considered a Taliban and al-Qaeda stronghold, making it unclear how far they will get.

Missiles fired by US drones routinely target militants in the semi-autonomous area in what US officials say is a key weapon in the war on terror.

Violation of international law

Peace campaigners condemn the strikes as a violation of international law, Pakistanis as a violation of sovereignty that breeds extremism, and politicians including Khan as a sign of a government complicit in killing its own people.

Khan, who has regularly condemned the US-led war on terror, says he wants to show the world the damage inflicted on innocent people by the drone campaign.

But critics accuse the former cricketer of blatant electioneering ahead of polls next year and of ignoring both atrocities blamed on Islamist militants and abuses by the Pakistani army.

Over the last year, Khan has become a growing force in politics, challenging the feudal and industrial elites who traditionally dominate in Pakistan, but there is scepticism about his ability to translate popularity into seats.

At Balkassar toll plaza near Chakwal, hundreds of supporters carrying green and red PTI banners gathered in hot sunshine to welcome Khan and the convoy of around 100 jeeps, buses and cars.

Party workers in "Cornered Tigers" T-shirts - a reference to Khan's inspirational talk to Pakistan before their 1992 World Cup victory - formed a human chain round his 4x4 to clear a path through a scrum of media and wellwishers.

Akhtar Syal, 63, from Sarghoda in Punjab, told AFP he had joined the protest because drones were destroying lives.

"It is a great thing that Imran Khan has raised his voice against it, so I am going to make his voice stronger and join him in this noble cause," he said.

"I am ready to die over there. If our brothers are being killed I will happily accept it."

Deadly strikes

Khan was accompanied by US anti-drone campaigners from the group Code Pink and the British head of legal lobby organisation Reprieve, Clive Stafford Smith.

The PTI plan to spend the night in the town of Dera Ismail Khan and on Sunday continue to Kotkai village in South Waziristan to hold a demonstration.

Kotkai has gained notoriety in recent years as the home town of Qari Hussain, who was considered the main suicide bomber trainer within the Pakistani Taliban but is said to have been killed in a drone strike in 2010.

Pakistani Taliban spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan put out a statement on the eve of the march, denying reports that they had promised to provide Khan with security.

The umbrella faction said it had no need for "sympathy" from a "secular and liberal person" trying to increase his political stature.

Although leaked US cables have revealed tacit support for the drone strikes from Pakistan's military and civilian leaders, Islamabad has increasingly condemned the programme as relations with Washington have deteriorated.

A report commissioned by Reprieve, Stanford Law School and the New York University School of Law last month gave a devastating account of the effect that drone strikes have on ordinary people.

It said the strikes terrorise civilians, damage US credibility, work as a recruitment tool for militants and generally kill low-ranking fighters.

Reliable casualty figures are difficult to obtain but the report estimated that 474 to 881 civilians were among 2 562 to 3 325 people killed by drones in Pakistan between June 2004 and September 2012.

Read more on:    imran khan  |  pakistan

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