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Convoy Procession In Pakistan Protests Drones


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. A mass protest is underway in Pakistan against CIA drone strikes. It is lead by one of Pakistan's top politicians, the former cricket star Imran Khan. Mr. Khan is leading a huge convoy, hundreds of people in dozens of vehicles, from the capital Islamabad to the tribal area along the Afghan border. He says he's on a peace mission.

Now, in a moment, we'll hear from Mr. Khan. But first, NPR's Philip Reeves has this report from the start of the convoy in Islamabad.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: The protesters gather early on a clear, sunny morning. This is the starting point of the journey of several hundred miles that they hope will end tomorrow with a big peace rally inside Pakistan's tribal belt. They're heading for South Waziristan, a regular target of deadly CIA drone attacks. They include Rahimullah Wazir, a student. He's from Waziristan and he's passionately opposed to drones, not least, he says, because four of his relatives have been killed by them.

RAHIMULLAH WAZIR: My cousins and my uncle.

REEVES: No one knows how many civilians CIA drones have killed in Pakistan. One recent report estimates at least 470 have died since the first drone strikes some eight years ago. U.S. officials say these attacks are clinical and carefully targeted and a crucial weapon in the war against Taliban and al-Qaida militants. Rahimullah said his dead relatives and many other victims like them had nothing to do with militants.

WAZIR: No, no, no, nothing, nothing, nothing. These peaceful people and professional people.

REEVES: About 30 American peace activists are travelling in the convoy. So is Gul Salam Jhan. He's lived for years in Switzerland where he has a supermarket, but he was born in the tribal belt and has friends and family there.

GUL SALAM JHAN: When I see my relatives, how they are suffering, that's why I came from the green mountains of Switzerland, such a peaceful place, just to participate here.

REEVES: Jhan says he recently went to visit an aunt in the tribal area and arrived just after a drone attack.

JHAN: So that was terrible when people, the childrens were running away from drones so, and it's difficult, really, believe me. One of my cousin's husband, he lost the legs.

REEVES: The convoy sets off. It's not clear if it'll reach South Waziristan. There are reports it could be targeted by suicide bombers. The Taliban in the tribal belt has declined to provide protection for Imran Khan and his followers. It says it has no sympathy for a secular liberal and accuses Khan of exploiting the drone controversy to try to boost the popularity of his political party.

Pakistan's government, citing security worries, it's forces may stop the convoy entering the tribal area. Protester Noman Afsal says he knows what he'll do if that happens.

NOMAN AFSAL: (Speaking foreign language)

REEVES: I'm willing to make a sacrifice by protesting against them, he says, and if that means going to jail, then so be it. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.