ISLAMABAD — Thousands of Pakistanis joined by a group of U.S. anti-war activists headed toward Pakistan's militant-riddled tribal belt Saturday to protest U.S. drone strikes — even as a Pakistani Taliban faction warned suicide bombers would stop the demonstration.
The motorcade march was led by Imran Khan, the ex-cricket star-turned-populist politician, whom militants have brushed off as a tool of the West despite his condemnations of the drone strikes, which have killed many militant leaders.
Khan insisted the protesters, who want to travel the roughly 400-kilometer (250-mile) route to the South Waziristan tribal region by Sunday, would go as far as possible.
"This is a peace march, an effort for peace in Pakistan on our part. ... We are not going to fight anyone," Khan said as the motorcade set off from Islamabad.
The convoy, which at its start numbered around 150 vehicles, grew steadily throughout the day, appearing to stretch for miles. It was warmly welcomed by Pakistanis in small towns and villages along the route. Pakistani TV footage showed people showering rose petals on the cars and other vehicles.
Around three dozen Americans from the U.S.-based anti-war group CODEPINK joined Khan for the march. Because access to Pakistan's tribal regions is heavily restricted, it was unclear whether the Westerners participating in the protest would be allowed to enter the region.
South Waziristan has been the scene of a Pakistani army offensive and a frequent target of the drone strikes aimed at the Pakistani Taliban. The protesters say that despite U.S. claims, the strikes have terrorized peaceful tribes living in the area and killed many innocent civilians.
"I'm hoping that what it will show is that the Pakistani people and American people and even the people in the tribal areas want peace," said Joe Lombardo, a U.S. activist from Delmar, New York.
James Ricks, another American activist, said he was going along with the convoy despite the danger. "I am taking this risk because my government is committing international war crimes and we want to stop this," said Ricks, of Ithaca, New York.
The convoy departed early in the morning, leaving behind some who arrived late in cars carrying Khan posters and the red-and-green flag of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf political party. Youths on motorcycles and vans blaring songs from loudspeakers rushed to catch up.
When Khan arrived in his home district of Mianwali, huge crowds greeted him. TV footage showed him wearing Pakistan's white traditional dress, sitting on the roof of his vehicle, waving back to his cheering supporters.
Khan, in brief chats with media at different stops, said government officials had tried to discourage people from joining the march.
"Fearing this will be an historic rally, they (government) have attempted to discourage people through scaring tactics but you have seen the response," he said. "This will prove to be a historic event."
The government has warned about safety concerns, especially in South Waziristan. Although that tribal region has theoretically been under army control since an offensive there in late 2009, militants still roam the area.
The main faction of the Pakistani Taliban, which is based in South Waziristan, issued a statement Saturday calling Khan a "slave of the West" and saying that the militants "don't need any sympathy" from such "a secular and liberal person."
The statement did not 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."
On Saturday, a statement from a Taliban faction said to be based in Pakistan's eastern Punjab province warned that militants would welcome the protesters with suicide bombings.
"We ask the brave people of Waziristan not to side with the gang of Jews and Christians — otherwise their fate will be terrible," the Punjabi Taliban said in the statement.
Khan in his televised remarks attacked the militant accusations: "We have no political aims but want to protect tribal people from drone attacks. ... They are whispering that Jews and Christians are coming. They should feel shame for this act."
Earlier in the week, Khan said 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 a major rally wherever they decided to stop.