Thousands of Pakistanis joined by a group of US anti-war activists are headed towards Pakistan's militant-riddled tribal belt to protest US drone strikes - even as a Pakistani Taliban faction warned that suicide bombers would stop the demonstration.
The motorcade march on Saturday was led by Imran Khan, an ex-cricket star-turned-populist politician who heads the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. Militants have dismissed Khan as a tool of the West despite his condemnations of the drone strikes, which have killed many Islamist insurgent leaders.
Pakistanis in small towns and villages along the roughly 400-kilometre route warmly welcomed the 150-plus vehicle convoy. Footage broadcast on Pakistani TV showed people showering rose petals on the motorcade. But by late Saturday, it appeared increasingly less likely the protesters would reach their ultimate destination, the South Waziristan tribal area, where they hoped to stage a major rally.
Government officials had warned of dangers in South Waziristan, a frequent focus of drone strikes and the scene of a 2009 Pakistani army offensive. Pakistani media reported authorities used shipping containers to block the main road leading into the region, where access has long been heavily restricted.
In an interview with the private Dunya TV channel, Khan said he had reached another major town on the route, Dera Ismail Khan, and that he would consult with his party leaders on the situation. The protesters had planned to stay overnight in the Dera Ismail Khan area before heading to South Waziristan on Sunday.
'We have come here for peace,' Khan said. 'I don't want to put the life of my guests in danger, but I would like to know the level of the threat.'
Around three dozen Americans from the US-based anti-war group CODEPINK joined Khan for the march. Because foreigners are normally forbidden from entering Pakistan's tribal regions, it was unclear whether the Westerners would have ever been allowed in.
The American protesters echoed Pakistani condemnations of the US drone strikes, saying that contrary to the claims of American officials, the strikes have terrorised peaceful tribes living along the Afghan border and killed many innocent civilians - not just Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters.
On Saturday, a statement from a Taliban faction said to be based in Pakistan's eastern Punjab province warned that militants would welcome the protesters with suicide bombings.
'We ask the brave people of Waziristan not to side with the gang of Jews and Christians - otherwise their fate will be terrible,' the Punjabi Taliban said in the statement.