Pakistani security forces on Monday stopped hundreds of hard-line Islamists from heading to northwestern Pakistan to protest against a fatal U.S. missile attack, the first time authorities have tried to quell mounting anti-American sentiments.
The convoy of 2,000 protesters, led by senior politicians from an opposition religious coalition, was heading to Damadola to protest the Jan. 13 attack that targeted top Al Qaeda leaders but also killed 13 civilians — outraging many in this Islamic nation.
Hundreds of armed local police erected barricades at Yukka Ghund, a town about 20 miles from Damadola, and blocked the convoy — which had set off earlier from the capital, Islamabad, gathering strength along the way.
There was no violence but some protesters chanted "Down with America! Down with Musharraf!" After some of the political leaders made speeches, the convoy headed back.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf is a close ally in Washington's War on Terror. The missile strike has intensified opposition among Pakistanis to that alliance and appears to have stoked support for Al Qaeda along its lawless border with Afghanistan.
Qazi Hussain Ahmad, president of the opposition Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal or United Action Front, a six-party Islamic coalition, said their rally was peaceful.
"We were going to Bajur to condemn the attacks and to prove that Pakistanis are against such acts against our sovereignty," said Ahmad, referring to the tribal region where Damadola is located. He demanded that Musharraf resign for failing to protect the lives of Pakistani citizens.
The protest followed a gathering of about 5,000 people near Damadola on Sunday.
Pakistani intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, say the attack targeted, but missed, Al Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, but may have killed four other top Al Qaeda members, including a top bombmaker with a $5 million bounty on his head.
Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, however, said Sunday there was no proof of that. During a visit to the United States, he called reports that Al Qaeda leaders had been gathering in Damadola as "bizarre."
"The area does see movement of people from across the border. But we have not found one body or one shred of evidence that these people were there," Aziz told CNN, adding that Washington failed to inform Pakistani officials of the airstrike in advance.
Also Monday, lawmakers in northwestern Pakistan demanded the government expel U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker in response to the airstrike. But the unanimous resolution by the provincial assembly was unlikely to sway the federal government.
Thousands of Al Qaeda and Taliban militants, including Usama bin Laden and top lieutenant al-Zawahiri, are believed to have sought refuge along the porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Despite Aziz's denial that Al Qaeda had been meeting in Damadola, Pakistani authorities say they are looking for militants who might have survived the attack, although Pakistan has not visibly stepped up maneuvers in the area.
Pakistan says it does not allow U.S. forces to pursue militants across the border from Afghanistan or launch strikes without permission.