LAHORE, Pakistan – Thousands of hardline Islamists streamed toward Pakistan's capital in a massive convoy of vehicles Sunday to protest the government's decision to allow the U.S. and other NATO countries to resume shipping troop supplies through the country to Afghanistan.
The demonstration, which started in the eastern city of Lahore, was organized by the Difah-e-Pakistan Council — Defense of Pakistan Council — a group of politicians and religious leaders who have been the most vocal opponents of the supply line.
Pakistan closed the route in November in retaliation for American airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani troops. Following months of negotiations, Islamabad finally agreed to reopen the route last week after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton apologized for the deaths.
Clinton met with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar for the first time since the apology Sunday on the sidelines of an Afghan aid conference in Tokyo and expressed hope that resolution of the supply line conflict would lead to better relations between the troubled allies.
One of the reasons Pakistan waited so long to resolve the conflict is that the government was worried about domestic backlash in a country where anti-American sentiment is rampant despite billions of dollars in U.S. aid over the last decade.
The protest started Sunday in the center of Lahore, where several thousand people assembled with scores of buses, cars and motorbikes. They linked up with thousands more supporters waiting on the city's edge and drove toward Islamabad in a so-called "long march" against the supply line. The convoy included about 200 vehicles carrying some 8,000 people when it left Lahore, said police official Babar Bakht.
After completing the 300 kilometer (185 mile) journey to Islamabad, they plan to hold a protest in front of the parliament building Monday.
"By coming out on the streets, the Pakistani nation has shown its hatred for America," one of the Difah-e-Pakistan leaders, Maulana Samiul Haq, known as the father of the Taliban, said in a speech on the outskirts of Lahore.
Supporters showered Haq with rose petals as he rode through Lahore in the back of a truck with other Difah-e-Pakistan leaders, including Hafiz Saeed, founder of the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group; Hamid Gul, a retired Pakistani intelligence chief with a long history of militant support; and Syed Munawar Hasan, leader of Pakistan's most powerful Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami.
Many demonstrators rode on the tops of buses, waving party flags and shouting slogans against the U.S. and NATO. "One solution for America, jihad, jihad!" they shouted.
The crowd was dominated by members of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, widely believed to be a front group for Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is blamed for the attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008 that killed more than 160 people. Jamaat-ud-Dawa is led by the group's founder, Saeed.
"The movement that has been started to reverse the government's decision to restore the NATO supply will go on until America leaves this region for good," Saeed said in a speech on the outskirts of Lahore. "The mission is noble because it is to save the country and the nation from slavery."
The U.S. announced a $10 million bounty earlier this year for information leading to the arrest or conviction of Saeed, but he operates freely in the country. Pakistan says it doesn't have enough evidence to arrest Saeed, but many suspect the government is reluctant to move against him and other militant leaders because they have longstanding ties with the country's military and intelligence service.
Rehman Malik, a government security adviser, said members of banned militant groups would not be allowed to enter Islamabad for the Difah-e-Pakistan protest Monday, but all others would be welcomed.
"They are patriots. They are not anti-state people," Malik told reporters. "We will welcome them with open arms."
It's unclear if they will try to prevent Saeed from attending the protest.
Difah-e-Pakistan is widely believed to be supported by the Pakistani army as a way to put pressure on the U.S. Its leaders have vowed to stop NATO trucks from making the journey from the southern port city of Karachi to the Afghan border. But if the group has army backing, it could moderate its actions.
Although the army was outraged by the U.S. attack on its troops, which Washington said was an accident, it was eager to repair the relationship to free up more than $1 billion in military aid that had been frozen for the past year.
The U.S. waited so long to apologize in part because the Obama administration was apparently worried such a move would expose it to criticism from Republicans in a presidential election year. Many U.S. officials and lawmakers harbor deep suspicions of Pakistan, citing the country's alleged support for militants fighting U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan.
While the supply line through Pakistan was closed, the U.S. was forced to rely on a longer, more costly route that runs into Afghanistan through Central Asia. The route cost the U.S. an extra $100 million per month.
The U.S. also wanted to resolve the conflict because it needs Pakistan's help to strike a peace deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan so that American troops can withdraw without the country descending into further chaos. Pakistan is seen as key to an agreement because of its strong historical ties with the Taliban and its allies.
Abbot reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writers Zarar Khan and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad and Bradley Klapper in Tokyo contributed to this report.