Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan on Thursday insisted a planned “peace march” to the country’s restive tribal areas would go ahead despite security fears and doubts over whether the authorities would allow it.
Khan, the cricketing legend who now heads his own party, plans to lead a convoy from Islamabad to South Waziristan at the weekend to protest against US drone strikes.
The PTI plans to take Western journalists and campaigners on the march, including the British head of charity Reprieve Clive Stafford Smith and 30 American anti-drone campaigners.
A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban told AFP that the umbrella militia, which is fighting an insurgency against the government and whose members are killed by US missiles, had not yet formulated its position on the march.
Khan said the Taliban had given their agreement through intermediaries in the tribal areas.
“The tribes have got in touch with the militants and the tribes have told us that it’s fine, they have no objections to it,” Khan told a news conference.
Access to the tribal areas, where Taliban and al Qaeda-linked militants have strongholds, is strictly controlled by Pakistan and independent access for foreigners is banned.
There have been conflicting reports this week about whether permission for the march to enter South Waziristan has been granted, and by whom, but Khan insisted it would go ahead.
“I still don’t understand why is the government going to stop us? When they know neither the militants nor the tribal areas are objecting to this and certainly the army’s not objecting to this,” he said.
The PTI plan to lead the march to the village of Kotkai in South Waziristan and rally there, but Khan said if the authorities intervened, they would hold the rally wherever they were stopped.
A senior administration official in South Waziristan said that Khan and his followers would not be allowed to enter the district because of the security situation.
Missile attacks on suspected militants from unmanned American drones arouse anger in Pakistan but US officials regard them as an important weapon in the fight against terror networks.
Opposition to the drone campaign has become a central plank of PTI’s policy as Pakistan gears up for a general election due within six months.
Stafford Smith, who wrote an open letter to US President Barack Obama last week asking him not to order a drone strike on the marchers, said it was important to shine a light on what was going on in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
“Every experiment we’ve had in the war on terror has seemed to achieve its purpose until the truth came out,” he said.
“It’s when we begin to open the world up to inspection that people see the truth and the reason we have to go to stand by people in Waziristan is that otherwise people won’t see the truth.”