ISLAMABAD (AP) — Thousands of Pakistanis, joined by U.S. anti-war activists, headed Sunday morning toward Pakistan's volatile tribal region to protest American drone strikes despite threats from the Taliban and indications they might not make it to their destination, local media reported.
The rally headed by former cricket star turned politician Imran Khan is designed to throw a spotlight on the drone attacks, which many Pakistanis oppose because they say the strikes violate their sovereignty and kill civilians.
The rally into a part of the country where the Pakistani military has been battling a violent uprising by the Taliban has also become a target of Taliban ire.
The motorcade started from Islamabad Saturday morning, and after an overnight stay in the city of Dera Ismail Khan, departed for the tribal belt.
In a televised speech before the convoy got under way Sunday morning, Khan thanked his supporters and the U.S. group.
"We have achieved the goal of this march. Our message of peace has reached the world. I am thankful especially to the American group that came a long way here to join this protest against drone attacks," he said.
Thousands of supporters turned out along the route on the road outside Dera Ismail Khan to cheer on Khan and the convoy of supporters and accompanying media, which stretched about 15 kilometers (9 miles) long.
Supporters packed into vehicles waved flags for Khan's political group and chanted: "We want peace."
Video on Pakistani media showed barricades with hundreds of police in riot gear, a sign of concerns that the motorcade would be attacked or become unruly.
The key test will be whether Pakistani officials allow Khan and his supporters to enter South Waziristan, one of the country's tribal areas which border Afghanistan to the west. After three years of military operations in the area, the Pakistani military is still struggling to suppress militants in South Waziristan.
Earlier, demonstrators pushed aside shipping containers blocking their way in two cities on the way to South Waziristan, an indication of the size of the crowd and its fervor.
A senior official in the South Waziristan administration, Hameedullah Khattak, vowed that the motorcade would not be allowed to enter the tribal area, citing security concerns.
"We will not let them in South Waziristan for security reasons. Here is major security situation and we cannot provide them security," he said.
Factions of the Taliban have threatened to attack the march. On Saturday, a statement from a Taliban faction said to be based in Pakistan's eastern Punjab province warned that militants would target the protesters with suicide bombings.
The main faction of the Pakistani Taliban, which is based in South Waziristan, issued a statement Friday calling Khan a "slave of the West" and saying that the militants "don't need any sympathy" from such "a secular and liberal person."
Khan brushed aside the criticism on Saturday but has indicated that if the group is not allowed into South Waziristan, they will simply hold a rally wherever they end up.
Khan has seen his popularity surge in recent years in Pakistan, where the government, led by the Pakistan People's Party of Asif Ali Zardari, has disappointed many.
The former cricket star long had a reputation as a playboy, but in recent years he has said he has grown stronger in his Muslim faith. He also has used attacks on the U.S. drone program as a means of gaining public esteem in Pakistan.
The U.S. says its drone strikes are necessary to battle militants that Pakistan has been unable or unwilling to control.