ISLAMABAD — U.S. diplomats Friday warned a group of American peace activists not to attend a rally against U.S. missile strikes scheduled for this weekend, saying terrorists have threatened to attack the demonstration.
Separately, the Pakistani Taliban warned Friday that they oppose the rally, which is being led by Imran Khan, an internationally famous cricket player who has become one of Pakistan’s most popular opposition politicians largely on the basis of his outspoken criticism of the U.S. role in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The demonstration, which has been organized by Khan’s political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, is scheduled to leave Islamabad Saturday and hopes to enter South Waziristan, part of the militant-plagued tribal area that is considered a no-go zone, on Sunday as a protest against the use of unmanned drones to attack suspected al Qaida and Taliban militants.
The 32 American peace campaigners are from Code Pink, an advocacy group known in Washington for disrupting congressional hearings and other high-profile activities. Their presence in Waziristan, a place where no Westerners go, and certainly not Western women, would be novel. Also on the march will be British-American lawyer Clive Stafford Smith and members of his human rights organization, Reprieve, best known for its advocacy work on behalf of detainees held at the U.S. prison camps at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
According to the peace activists, U.S. diplomats alerted them in person to information from what the diplomats said were “credible sources” that a suicide attack is planned against the march. The activists, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were briefed in confidence, said the diplomats showed them a piece of paper that contained a one-line summary of the threat and implored them not to go, but they did not provide further details of the danger. U.S. officials confirmed the account.
The Code Pink activists, who staged a small demonstration in Islamabad on Friday night, insisted they would go ahead.
“The people of Waziristan are threatened every day by drones. They live in a constant state of anxiety and terror,” said Paki Wieland, 69, of Northampton, Mass., explaining why she planned to ignore the U.S. warning.
“We are here to expose the false narrative that there are no civilian casualties from the drones,” said Alli McCracken, 23, of Washington, who described herself as a full-time activist with Code Pink. “We believe that people are innocent until proven guilty.”
Much of the tribal area is under the de facto rule of the Pakistani Taliban and other Islamist extremists, including al Qaida and the Haqqani Network, a deadly Afghan insurgent group that the United States recently declared a terrorist organization. The Pakistani military, which has forts and other bases across the tribal area, controls some parts, including Kotkai, the village in South Waziristan that the march intends to reach.
Pakistan’s Interior Ministry also reportedly has warned of a possible terrorist attack against the rally and has said it will not allow the protesters to enter South Waziristan. That could mean a potentially volatile standoff with thousands of determined demonstrators. Imran Khan has said that he expects up to 100,000 people to join him on the march.
Critics of drone attacks describe them as extra-judicial execution, and Khan has called them a crime against humanity. President Barack Obama reportedly personally approves the “kill list” of targeted militants. U.S. officials have insisted that civilian casualties from the attacks are few but only rarely have discussed the program publicly because it is supposedly secret.
The Pakistani Taliban’s statement Friday singling out Khan described him as a “Westernized and secular personality” whose political party is guilty of “slavery” towards the West. Khan earned a reputation as a playboy during his cricket-playing years.
“Imran Khan’s march is not to show solidarity with victims of drone strikes but to further his own political ends,” said the statement, issued by Ehsan ullah Ehsan, the spokesman of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan.
The rejection from the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, an umbrella group for some of the most violent Taliban factions in Pakistan, comes despite the fact that Khan has tirelessly criticized the American presence in Afghanistan and the drone attacks and has advocated opening peace negotiations with Pakistan’s Taliban.
Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.