Pakistani cricketer turned politician Imran Khan led Western activists and thousands of supporters Saturday on a defiant march to the tribal belt to protest against US drone strikes.
Crowds lined the road to greet Khan, and scrums of media and well-wishers thronged his 4X4 as the convoy of more than 100 vehicles embarked on the 440-kilometre (270-mile) drive from Islamabad to South Waziristan.
But as Saturday wore on, it appeared increasingly unlikely the protesters would be allowed to reach their destination, considered a Taliban and Al-Qaeda stronghold, and often called the most dangerous place on earth.
The government says the Taliban plan to attack the rally, authorities told AFP it was not safe for Khan to enter the semi-autonomous tribal belt and television broadcast footage of shipping containers closing the road into South Waziristan.
“I condemn the hypocrisy of the government, who tried their best to make this march fail,” Khan told around 5,000 supporters at a brief halt on the outskirts of the Punjab town of Mianwali, his former parliamentary seat.
“They are saying that Taliban have sent nine suicide attackers. If (President Asif Ali) Zardari sends even a 100 suicide attackers this march will not stop,” added Khan, who leads the Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) or Movement for Justice party.
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.
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 is hoping to win a landslide victory in general elections next year, has made opposition to the drone programme a key plank of PTI policy.
Critics accuse him of merely trying to further his own career and of ignoring both atrocities blamed on Islamist militants and abuses by the Pakistani army.
And while he is a growing political force, challenging feudal and industrial elites who traditionally dominate in Pakistan, there is huge scepticism about his ability to translate popularity into seats.
Former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who defected from the main ruling party to PTI this year, insisted the march would not be a failure if the authorities stopped it from reaching Waziristan.
“The point is it’s symbolic,” he said.
“The government is saying we are against drones. The people are saying they are against drones. What are they afraid of? Why are they blocking us?”
Khan is accompanied by around 30 US campaigners from the group Code Pink and the British head of legal lobby organisation Reprieve, Clive Stafford Smith.
Akhtar Syal, 63, from Sargodha in Punjab, told AFP he had joined the protest because drones were destroying lives and that he was ready to die for the cause.
“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,” he said.
“I am ready to die over there. If our brothers are being killed I will happily accept it.”
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 is notorious as a place where Taliban commander Qari Hussain, said to have been killed in a drone strike in 2010, used to train suicide bombers for the Taliban who have killed thousands in Pakistan since 2007.
Kifayetullah, the commissioner of Dera Ismail Khan who uses one name, said it was “out of the question” that the protesters would enter Waziristan.
“Security will be provided to the rally but roads beyond Dera Ismail Khan will be blocked because there are threats of IED, sniper and bomb attacks. We have to protect the lives of everyone,” he told AFP.
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 last month said casualty figures are difficult to obtain but 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.