Cricket Star Imran Khan Leads Anti-Drone March Into Volatile Pakistan Region

In Pakistan, anti-war marchers led by Pakistani cricket star-turned politician Imran Khan, are hoping to enter the tribal territory of South Waziristan Sunday to protest against U.S. drone attacks on Islamist militants there. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

We turn now to Pakistan where a big motor convoy has been snaking across the map. It was led by Imran Khan, a former cricket star who is now a top politician. Khan and his supporters set out yesterday from the capital Islamabad and headed for South Waziristan in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan. The plan was to hold a demonstration there against U.S. drones. But as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, it didn't work out that way.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Imran Khan set out to go to one of the most dangerous places on the planet. He always suspected the Pakistani authorities would block his path. He was right. South Waziristan is a stronghold of the Taliban and other militants, regularly targeted by missiles fired from CIA drones. Khan hoped to hold a big rally there to call for peace and to highlight his view that U.S. drone strikes are fueling extremism by indiscriminately killing and injuring civilians. Before setting out, Khan predicted a big turnout.

IMRAN KHAN: And the whole message will be: It's time for different tactics. Drone attacks are only fueling fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

REEVES: As it rattled across the landscape for the best part of two days, the convoy stopped in towns along the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

REEVES: Thousands turned out welcoming Khan and his supporters with drums and cheers and showers of rose petals. Noor Bahram, a tribesman, lives in the remote mountains close to the Afghan border. He and his relatives were determined to join the procession.

NOOR BAHRAM: (Through translator) We traveled 15 hours to be here. Other tribesmen have done the same. Even though getting here is risky and scary. This is good news for Waziristan and for Pakistan.

REEVES: Bahram's in a van festooned with pictures of dead children. He says these are the innocent victims of U.S. missile strikes, and insists the images are genuine. The convoy swelled in size as it drew closer to the tribal belt. Local media reports say that in the end, it comprised thousands of Pakistanis, including many from Imran Khan's political party. Their mission was full of perils. The Taliban condemned the protest, accusing Khan of exploiting the drone controversy to win votes.

Rumors circulated about possible suicide attacks. This did not deter 31 Americans from the antiwar group, Code Pink, from taking part. The roads into South Waziristan from the rest of Pakistan are guarded by Pakistani forces. Government officials made clear early on that they did not intend to allow the convoy to pass, citing the dangers. Security forces blocked the road with shipping containers a few miles short of the South Waziristan border. Officially, Pakistan's government shares Khan's aversion to U.S. drone strikes. Its decision to block the convoy will likely reinforce a widely held view that it actually tacitly supports the use of drones.

After some fruitless negotiations at the roadblock, Imran Khan this afternoon turned his convoy around. It returned to a nearby frontier town where Khan delivered a speech to a crowd of about 10,000. Despite this setback, Code Pink's Medea Benjamin says the peace convoy was a success. She believes it highlighted the damage caused by American drones.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: And perhaps there will be less drone strikes as a result of the attention that we've been putting on this.

REEVES: Critics and rivals of Imran Khan say his peace mission had more to do with next year's elections than drones. Khan did not draw massive crowds, as he has in the past. Yet he is a rising force in Pakistani politics. He especially seems to appeal to young Pakistanis weary of the corrupt feudal elite and the military men who run their nation. The question now is, will his unusual weekend odyssey help or hinder his political fortunes? Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad.

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