Imran first to blink as march turns back from the badlands

Former cricketer hails anti-drones protest a success despite being prevented from entering tribal zone

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The Independent Online

As the sun set last night, Imran Khan claimed his peace march into Pakistan's most dangerous areas had been a success, despite failing to make it into militant-plagued South Waziristan.

The cricketer-turned-politician led a convoy of several hundred vehicles of supporters and press from Islamabad in a chaotic and gruelling two-day cavalcade that inched its way west across the country.

But the peace protest, which had hoped to reach Kotkai, was forced to turn back just beyond Tank, the last town before South Waziristan, a no-go zone where admission is tightly controlled, after Mr Khan's party received military warnings of "extreme danger" ahead. But Mr Khan could claim success. Thousands turned out to support the march, which had achieved its mission of attracting attention to the bombardment of the tribal belt by American unmanned "drone" aircraft, a clandestine programme run by the CIA that aims to assassinate suspected al-Qa'ida and Taliban militants with precision strikes.

The stunt had also boosted Mr Khan's political credentials, as he gears up for a long-shot at becoming Pakistan's next prime minister. He told his exhausted supporters at a rally that they had been on a journey that neither of the country's two traditional ruling parties could pull off.

"Drones are against all human rights and international law," Mr Khan, wearing an elaborate tribal turban, told about 3,000 supporters. "We wish to give the Americans a message: the more you do your drone attacks, the more people here will hate you". Mr Khan claims that the drones largely kill civilians and the anger this generates drives terrorist attacks in Pakistan, as tribesmen take revenge.

Since the programme started in 2004, the CIA has carried out 334 missile strikes in Pakistan's tribal area. These have reportedly killed between 1,886 and 3,194 people, according to a tally kept by the New America Foundation, a US think tank.

How many of those killed were, in fact, extremists is hotly debated, with some from the tribal area privately insisting that almost all the dead were militants.

Festooned with flags and posters, the convoy was led by a line of Toyota Land Cruisers carrying the top brass of Mr Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf party, and was greeted by enthusiastic crowds at towns and villages along the way, waving and wanting to catch a glimpse of Mr Khan

"If these drones stopped, this area, Waziristan, would be peaceful," said Kalim Ullah Khan Dawar, one of the marchers from North Waziristan. "I've had to carry out the bodies of dead children myself from the wreckage of strikes."

Adding to the pizzazz of the event was a sprinkling of foreign campaigners, including the British human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, and 32 US peace activists, mostly women, from a group called Code Pink. Addressing the rally, Mr Stafford Smith said: "We are your friends. We are here with you to make sure you get justice, to make sure there are no more drones."

Mr Khan may have claimed success yesterday, but his critics remained scathing. In the English-language newspaper Dawn Sunday, Pakistani columnist Cyril Almeida called the march "a made-for-TV dog and pony show that will be high on drama and low on substance [that] will resonate with Khan's base". The protest had earlier pushed on despite the seemingly real danger of a suicide bombing by the Pakistani Taliban, withering criticism accusing Mr Khan of appeasing extremists and the government's refusal to give permission to enter South Waziristan, part of the lawless tribal area that borders Afghanistan.

As the convoy attempted to leave Tank for Kotkai, authorities put blockades in front of the marchers. Young activists from Mr Khan's party managed to overturn the shipping containers put in their path. However, that delayed the protesters so much that, as they left Tank for South Waziristan, it was already afternoon and night would be no time to be caught in the tribal area.

Mr Khan said that the military contacted him to warn of a "genuine threat" ahead. That, together with the fading light, convinced him to end the march.

Earlier this week, in threatening tones, the Pakistani Taliban had issued a statement excoriating Mr Khan and the march. It is in the interests of both the military and the Taliban to keep the tribal area beyond the scrutiny of ordinary Pakistanis and the rest of the world. In that, they succeeded.