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Drone protesters block NATO supply routes in Pakistan

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PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Members of the ruling parties of Pakistan's northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province have erected blockades at several points along main highways hoping to stop trucks carrying goods for NATO forces in Afghanistan in a protest over the use of U.S. drones.

Workers of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party and Jamaat-e-Islami, a radical Islamist party, have set up camps since Sunday to check loaded trucks heading along the Torkham Highway in the direction of Afghanistan.

Former cricket star Imran Khan, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s chairman, said Sunday that the blockade would last until Washington stopped mounting drone strikes in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the neighboring tribal area.

The catalyst for the protest was a Nov. 21 drone attack on a religious seminary in Thall town inside Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that killed six top commanders of the Haqqani network, among the most ruthless and feared insurgent groups in Afghanistan. Haqqani militants, who are allied with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, are accused of numerous kidnappings and attacks on foreign operations in Afghanistan, including ones against the U.S. and Indian embassies in Kabul.

Some eight to 10 containers filled with supplies for U.S.-led  North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces are transported daily to Afghanistan through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, officials said. But protesters said they hadn’t seen any trucks carrying NATO supplies recently, possibly because demonstrators had signaled their intention for days, giving truckers time to circumvent the roadblocks.

The provincial government has distanced itself from the protests. Local media reported that police were intervening in some areas to prevent demonstrators from blocking trucks, adding that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa would mount an investigation into protesters who tried to halt vehicles.

On Monday, ministers and lawmakers handed over a memo criticizing the drone strikes to Christopher Backen, regional security officer with the U.S. Consulate in Peshawar.

“You can come for a cup of tea anytime,” Backen said, while receiving the document from senior provincial minister Sirajul Haq.

Haq responded by initiating a chant: “Stop drone strikes. Stop drone strikes.”

CIA drone strikes that target Islamic militants in Pakistan's northwest region have come under sharp criticism from many Pakistanis, who see their use as a violation of national sovereignty and an inexact weapon given that civilians have also been killed. Even as officials condemn their use in public, however, elements of the Pakistan government have reportedly assisted with information on targets and other intelligence.

The route that activists attempted to block this week leads to one of a pair of border crossings used to ferry NATO supplies to and from Afghanistan. The other crossing, in southwest Baluchistan province, hasn’t been affected by the demonstrations.

The truck routes are a point of vulnerability for foreign militaries operating in landlocked Afghanistan, since the alternatives are more expensive and involve longer distances. After a U.S. airstrike accidentally killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border in 2011, Islamabad blocked the routes for seven months, only relenting after the U.S. apologized. The Taliban has also targeted trucks along the route.

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Twitter:@MarkMagnier

Mark.Magnier@latimes.com

Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali reported from Peshawar and staff writer Mark Magnier reported from New Delhi.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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