Pakistan halts drone protest led by ex-cricketer Imran Khan

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani authorities stopped a protest over U.S. drone strikes led by cricketer turned politician Imran Khan from entering the troubled region of South Waziristan on Sunday, prompting allegations the government was ambivalent about U.S. actions.

Pakistan’s military and the civilian government publicly complain that the strikes - aimed at remnants of al Qaeda and the Taliban - infringe the country’s sovereignty and cause civilian casualties. Yet the government has taken little concrete action against the strikes.

Khan, who blames the government for allowing the U.S. to operate in the country, had planned to lead the protest from the capital into South Waziristan, a tribal area frequently hit by the drone strikes.

But authorities blocked their path with shipping containers on the highway. After several delays the army told protesters it was unsafe to be on the road after dark and they turned back.

“The drones are inhumane,” Khan said, donning a white turban as he stood on a vehicle in the town of Tank, surrounded by thousands of protesters.

“Are these people not humans? These humans have names. Drone attacks are a violation of human rights,” he said.

About 30 Americans traveled to Pakistan to take part in the protest and apologize for the strikes to men and women who had been maimed or lost family members.

Imran Khan, cricketer-turned-politician and head of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), wears a turban while addressing his supporters as he leads a peace march against U.S. drone strikes from Islamabad to South Waziristan, in Musa Khel, located in the province of Punjab October 6, 2012. REUTERS/Saad Arsalan

“We have to put pressure on the United States government,” said Billy Kelly, a 69-year-old Vietnam veteran from New York.

The United States says the strikes have killed top Taliban and al-Qaida commanders and civilian casualties are minimal. But it refuses to say how targets are selected or how the military determines whether the dead were fighters or civilians.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which tracks drone strikes, said between 1,232-1,366 people had been killed since the strikes began in 2004. Between 474-884 were believed to be civilians, it said.

A recent report, Living Under Drones, said that large swathes of Pakistan’s tribal areas were terrorized by the drones.

Civilians were scared to go to school or work in case they were targeted, the report by Stanford and New York Universities said.

Getting accurate data on casualties and the effects of drones is extremely difficult since the government allows few foreigners into the tribal areas and the Taliban often seal off the sites of strikes. Drones also often attack people arriving at the site of the strike.

The march highlighted the way that drones complicate the Pakistani government’s already uneasy relationship with the United States. Americans often justify the strikes by saying Pakistan is unable or unwilling to crush the insurgency.

“The government is making pro forma protests but Imran has shown the world he will do something,” said Shamsad Ahmed Khan, a former foreign secretary.

He noted the government declared a national day of protests over a blasphemous film last month, but it had never called for such a protest over the drone strikes.

Some Pakistanis, however, questioned why the marchers were not talking about atrocities by the Taliban or the Pakistani army, both of which have killed far more people than the drone strikes.

Columnist Saroop Ijaz said that the Taliban frequently and deliberately target civilians by bombing hospitals, schools, funerals and shrines.

“Drone attacks began and continue because of the ideology of murder and not the other way around,” he wrote in the Express Tribune.

The Taliban denounced the march as political theatre ahead of next year’s elections and condemned Khan and his party as “secular and liberal”.

Editing by Sanjeev Miglani