TANK, PAKISTAN // Imran Khan, the Pakistani cricketer turned politician, yesterday called off his "peace march" 20 kilometres short of South Waziristan, after the military refused to let him into the militant-infested region.
Mr Khan, accompanied by thousands of supporters from Pakistan, together with about 100 activists from the United States, began his march on Saturday and had hoped to stage a rally in South Waziristan against increasing missile strikes by US drones in the region, a major Al Qaeda and Taliban sanctuary on the Afghan border.
Speaking to thousands of supporters in Tank yesterday after turning around, Mr Khan said the military had advised him not to travel to South Waziristan.
"The army people told us that we should not proceed to South Waziristan as it is late and it will be dangerous, as well, because foreigners are travelling with us," he said.
However, he vowed that his party would continue its protest against the drone strikes. "We want to tell Americans that if they continue with their drone strikes here, then more people will take up arms against them," he said. "More people will fight with you."
He said he was calling off the protest to avoid bloodshed, as some Taliban factions had threatened to attack the activists.
Pashtun tribesman wearing traditional turbans, women in baggy trousers and flowing shirts, known as shalwar kameez, and young boys in jeans and T-shirts were among the marchers.
"I have come here to show my support for oppressed people of Waziristan," said Soran Singh, a Sikh from the north-west town of Bunar, as he sipped tea at a roadside restaurant during a break in the journey.
"I am happy that peace-loving people of America are also here. They will raise a voice for the poor people of America when they go back home," he added.
"It is time for all of us to come out of our homes to condemn drone attacks," said Wajeeha Khan, a 25-year-old activist and member Mr Khan's party from the eastern city of Lahore, while clapping as Mr Khan passed near her.
Some of Mr Khan's supporters expressed their frustration that the caravan had failed to reach its destination.
"Obviously, it is disappointing," said Waqar Sultan, an accountancy student from Islamabad, after Mr Khan's announcement. "It would have been much better that we had staged this protest in Waziristan."
But others said they were happy with what they had achieved.
On Friday, the authorities in South Waziristan and the nearby town of Tank had announced that the rally would not be allowed to enter the region and they had blocked the road with containers.
On Saturday morning, the obstacles outside Tank had been removed, giving the impression that the motorcade would be allowed to proceed to South Waziristan.
But as the caravan reached Baddara, a village 20km short of South Waziristan, Mr Khan's driver turned back towards Tank.
"We knew that the government will not allow us to go to Waziristan and Imran Khan had said that we would avoid confrontation," said Mansoor Nawaz, a recent economics graduate from the Lahore University of Management Sciences. "But he has fulfilled his promise that he would make an attempt, which he did."
"It's strange that we need to have permission from the government for travelling through our own country and to show support for our own people," said Mr Singh.
The US has stepped up its drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal belt in recent years but most of them had taken place in North Waziristan, with fewer in South Waziristan. US officials see the strikes as an effective tool to frustrate cross-border attacks in Afghanistan by militants based in Pakistan and say several high-profile militants have been killed.
But a recent study conducted by Stanford Law School and New York University's School of Law said the US drone strikes in Pakistan had killed far more people than the United States has acknowledged, traumatised innocent residents and largely been ineffective.
The study called for a re-evaluation of the practice, saying the number of "high-level" targets killed as a percentage of total casualties was extremely low - about 2 per cent.