ISLAMABAD – A group of American anti-war activists are in Pakistan to join a march into the country's tribal belt to protest U.S. drone strikes in the rugged northwest territory. Their presence has energized organizers behind the protest but also added to concerns that Islamist militants will target the weekend event.
The two-day march -- in reality a long convoy -- is to be led by Imran Khan, the former cricket star-turned-politician who has become a top critic of the American drone strikes in Pakistan.
It is to start Saturday in Islamabad and end in a town in South Waziristan, a tribal region that has been a major focus of drone strikes as well as the scene of a Pakistani army offensive against militants.
Khan, like many Pakistanis, alleges that the drone strikes have killed large numbers of innocent civilians and terrorized the tribes living along the Afghan border.
The U.S. rarely discusses the top-secret program, but American officials have said the majority of those killed are Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda militants and that the missiles used in the strikes are very precise.
The American activists -- around three dozen representatives of the U.S.-based activist group CODEPINK -- along with Clive Stafford Smith, founder of the London-based legal advocacy organization Reprieve, want to march with Khan and publicize the plight of communities affected by the U.S. drones.
Ahead of the march, local media carried reports Friday of alleged suicide bombings planned against the demonstration and a pamphlet distributed in a town along the march route warned participants they would face danger. The main Pakistani Taliban faction issued a statement criticizing the event.
The foreign activists, meanwhile, met with relatives of people said to have been killed in drone attacks. The group also marched in the capital's Jinnah Supermarket, chanting "Stop, stop drone attacks!" and singing "We are marching to Waziristan."
One placard said: "Drones fly, Children die."
Sherabaz Khan, 45, said he lost two brothers in a March 17, 2011, drone strike in Datta Khel, a town in North Waziristan. "My brothers were attending a tribal council to settle a business dispute in a timber deal, and they were killed," he said. "None of the people killed were militants."
Many of the foreigners expressed sympathy. "We have learned here from victims' families how innocent people, children and women are being killed. Enough is enough. We should stop these attacks," said Linda Wenning of Portland, Oregon.
Access to Pakistan's tribal regions is heavily restricted, and foreigners for the most part are forbidden from entering; it was unclear whether the Westerners wishing to participate in the anti-drone march would get permission to enter. South Waziristan has theoretically been under the army's control since its late 2009 operation there, but militants still roam the area.
Ahsanullah Ahsan, the spokesman for the main Pakistani Taliban faction, issued a statement Friday calling Khan, the ex-cricket star, a "slave of the West" and saying that the militants "don't need any sympathy" from such "a secular and liberal person."
Ahsan refused to reveal anything about the militants' plans regarding the march, but added: "Imran Khan's so-called Peace March is not in sympathy for drone-hit Muslims. Instead, it's an attempt by him to increase his political stature."
The local newspapers carried short items referring to an Interior Ministry warning that several suicide bombers planned to attack the march. Separately, pamphlets signed by a group calling itself the Army of the Caliphate were distributed in Tank, a town just outside South Waziristan. The fliers criticized Khan as an "agent of America, Israel and Jews."
"People are sincerely and emphatically advised to stay away from the public meeting, and anyone suffering any loss of life will himself be responsible in this world and in the world afterward," the documents warned.
Officials with Khan's political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, said late Friday there were no plans to stop the march or change its ultimate destination, despite the warnings from militants groups. The demonstrators intend to reach Kotkai, a town in South Waziristan, and stage a rally there that they hope will attract tens of thousands of people.
On Thursday, Khan told a press conference that South Waziristan tribal leaders had assured him that he and his entourage would be protected there. Still, he did allude to the possibility that entering the tribal area might not be possible, saying that the marchers would go as far as they could, and stage their rally wherever they decided to stop.