Thousands of Pakistanis protested U.S. drone strikes in the country’s northwest by staging a sit-in on a vital supply route for NATO forces in neighboring Afghanistan.
The demonstrators clogged the highway in Peshawar at the urging of Imran Khan, the former international cricket star whose Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party holds power in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region that borders Afghanistan. Shipments on the route, which isn’t used on weekends, will be blocked once they resume late tomorrow, the PTI party said.
“We will not allow the NATO supplies to pass through our province,” Khan told protesters at the rally broadcast live by Geo television. “Our protest will continue throughout Pakistan until the U.S. stops the drone strikes.”
A blockade of the supply route will concern the six-month-old government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who needs the support of the U.S., the country’s biggest donor, to help revive an economy plagued by an energy crisis and a Taliban insurgency.
“The central government has to ensure that the commitment that Pakistan has made with its allies must not be reneged and it’s their responsibility that supply continues,” said Raza Rumi, director of policy and programs at the Islamabad-based Jinnah Institute.
Party workers and their allies plan to stop supplies from both directions into Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa for an indefinite period of time, PTI spokeswoman Shireen Mazari said today in an e-mailed statement.
PTI emerged as the third-largest political party in this year’s general elections, won by Sharif’s party. Pakistan’s constitution gives the central government authority over provincial administrations in defense and foreign policy.
“Khan’s party has the capacity to sustain the blockade but I don’t think they will do it,” Rumi said. “This is an attempt to expand the popular support for PTI using the issue of drone strikes and anti-American sentiments in the country.”
Khan announced plans to shut the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa supply route after a drone strike killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, on Nov. 1, disrupting peace talks with militants.
The highway through Peshawar is one of two supply routes in Pakistan used for trucking non-lethal supplies for the forces in Afghanistan. The second runs through the southwestern province of Baluchistan.
Pakistan, where energy shortages have weighed on growth in the country’s $231 billion economy, agreed to open supply routes for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization last year after closing them in 2011 following a U.S. military strike that killed 24 Pakistani troops. The accord permits the forces to ship non-lethal supplies until 2015 using the two routes.
NATO, which will end its combat role in Afghanistan in 2014, needs Pakistan’s routes to supply its forces and remove equipment as they withdraw.
Government officials in Pakistan didn’t respond to telephone calls and e-mails seeking comment on the demonstration. Representatives of NATO forces in Kabul didn’t answer an e-mail sent today requesting comment.
The protest comes two days after a U.S. drone attack killed six people in the northwestern town of Hangu. Among the dead were children, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement yesterday. The strike had “deeply disturbed the people of Pakistan,” and concerns had been conveyed to the U.S. ambassador, it said in the statement.
The latest drone strike risks inflaming anti-U.S. public sentiment in Pakistan, where the attacks are seen as a violation of the country’s sovereignty and have strained ties between the government and the Obama administration.
After the drone attack killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the Pakistan government said it would review “every aspect” of cooperation with the Obama administration.
While the U.S. trumpeted the death of Mehsud, indicted in the U.S. three years ago for his alleged role in a suicide bombing that killed seven CIA employees in Afghanistan in 2009, Pakistan said the move had scuttled efforts to bring militants to the table for negotiations aimed at ending more than a decade of violence.