Imran Khan urges Pakistan to speak out over US drone strikes

Imran Khan, Pakistan's cricket legend turned politician, challenged his government to "come clean" on their support of CIA-operated drone strikes during a protest which shut down NATO supply routes to Afghanistan for two days.

The sit-in in Peshawar, 35 miles from the Afghan border, has blocked a major road used to supply Western forces in the country. The attacks, which routinely target suspected militants in the tribal areas along the border, have become a highly emotive issue in Pakistan, with innocent civilians often mistakenly targeted.

"If the government supports drone strikes, it should come clean and say so," Mr Khan told The Independent. "If, on the other hand, it genuinely opposes them, then it should order the Pakistan Air Force to shoot them down." Since its inception, Pakistan has quietly tolerated drone strikes.

Mr Khan threatened further protests if drone attacks are not stopped within a month. "The government can no longer play on both sides of the wicket," Mr Khan told a crowd of 5,000.

Hostility to the seven-year covert CIA programme has reached fever pitch in recent weeks after Pakistan army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani issued a rare denunciation of the strike last month, and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani called for drones to be stopped altogether.

For Washington, the drones hold obvious appeal. They are a pilotless means of eliminating high-level al-Qa'ida and Taliban targets where it cannot deploy troops. Pakistani officials have discreetly cheered as drones slayed some of its most wanted terrorists.

While US and even some Pakistani officials insist that the drones have become more accurate, the Pakistani public is incensed by what is perceived to be a high number of civilian casualties.

In Peshawar yesterday the crowd was overwhelmingly young and male. Many had come from nearby regions of the northwest, while others had travelled from as far as Lahore. They hurled taunts at their "corrupt" and "enslaved" politicians and cheered and waved Mr Khan's party flags as Pashtun pop songs blared over the loudspeakers

"The cause has to move from the parliament to the streets because parliament has been ineffective," said Marvi Memon, an opposition parliamentarian who joined the protests.

For Mr Khan, opposition to drone attacks is the latest attempt at making political inroads. While widely cherished as a national treasure for his sporting success and philanthropic efforts, success at the ballot box has proved elusive. But he hopes growing support among Pakistan's youth, 65 per cent of the population, will alter his Movement for Justice's fortunes.

Sajjad Bangash, 24, says he was drawn to the protest by personal circumstances after three of his cousins died in a drone strike in Kurram.

"More than 40 people were killed, and none of them were militants," he claimed.

"We want change and Imran Khan can bring it," enthused Mr Bangash, a student at Gandahara University.

Critics of Mr Khan say that he is too soft on Islamist militants, preferring to cut peace deals with them rather than confront them with force. They say he denounces the drones with greater force than suicide bombings.

Mr Khan counters that Pakistan's participation in the "war on terror" has only fuelled further extremism, created more terrorists and devastated the local economy.