DERA ISMAIL KHAN, PAKISTAN // Thousands of Pakistanis joined by about 100 American peace activists yesterday began a long, noisy motorcade caravan into Pakistan's tribal belt to protest against US drone strikes in the area.
Led by Imran Khan, a former Pakistan cricket star turned politician, the rally's jubilant supporters chanted "unacceptable, unacceptable, drone attacks unacceptable", as more than 150 cars and buses began the 400 kilometre "peace march" from a hotel in Islamabad to Dera Ismail Khan town, gateway to the South Waziristan tribal region.
Mr Khan hopes to cross into South Waziristan, once a major base for Al Qaeda and Taliban militants on the Afghan border this morning, despite warnings that militants would attack the demonstration.
"America is killing innocent Pakistanis in drone strikes. This peace march is the first step towards stopping these attacks," Mr Khan told a rally near his hometown of Mianwali. "We condemn this government which is trying to scare away the people from the march by saying that suicide bombers might target it. Zardari is the biggest suicide bomber," he said, referring to Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari.
Mr Khan is a populist politician who heads the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. Militants have dismissed him as a tool of the West, despite his condemnations of the drone strikes. By late last night, it appeared increasingly less likely the protesters would reach their destination where they hoped to stage a major rally. Pakistani media reported authorities used shipping containers to block the main road leading into the region, where access has long been heavily restricted.
The rugged semi-autonomous area, inhabited by ethnic Pashtuns, has largely been under the control of army since it launched an anti-Taliban operation there in 2009, although most of the attacks took place in the neighbouring North Waziristan in recent years.
Dozens of relatives of civilian victims of drone strikes were also travelling in the caravan.
"My cousin Tariq was killed by the drone," Shakeem Khan, 22-year-old bearded man from Miran Shah, the main town of North Waziristan, said while sitting in a bus.
"No one else is raising voice for us except Imran Khan. That's why we are going along with him - to show our love with dear ones."
The US officials see the drone campaign as an effective tool to stem cross-border attacks of militants from Pakistan into Afghanistan and say several high-profile militants have been killed in these strikes.
But a recent study conducted by Stanford law school and New York University's school of law said the US drone strikes in Pakistan have killed far more people than the US has acknowledged, have 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 is extremely low - about two per cent.
The American protesters echoed Pakistani condemnations of the US drone strikes. "We have come here to apologise over the illegal and immoral actions of our government," Jameel Abdur Razzaq, an activist of Upstate Coalition Against Drones, a group of anti-war activists drawn from New York said."Obama is killing innocent children and is lying to the people," he said of the Barack Obama, the US president. He said about 60 activists of their group were taking part in the protest.
Around three dozen Americans from the US-based anti-war group CodePink joined Mr Khan for the march. A militant group which has previously been not reported in media, Jaish-ul-Mujahideen Al-Khilafat (the Army of Mujahideen of Caliphate) on Friday warned people not to join the caravan, saying they "will themselves will be responsible for their losses". A pamphlet purportedly from a faction of the Taliban was sent to media outlets in Dera Ismail Khan warning that they would carry out suicide bombings.
The main Taliban group, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also opposed Mr Khan's protest. "Imran is a secular man and is going to Waziristan for political point-scoring. We hate him," TTP main spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan said.
Mr Khan's supporters played patriotic Pashto songs in their cars during the journey. On the roadsides, young activists danced to drum beats and clapped as they caravan passed through their areas.
Mr Khan's critics say his protest was more of a political show than a genuine move to highlight plight of victims of drone attacks.
"Drones are coordinated by the CIA, whose headquarters are in the US. Instead of South Waziristan, it is far better idea to protest in front of the CIA headquarters," commentator Saleem Safi wrote in his article in Islamabad edition of daily The News yesterday.
* With additional reporting from the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse