Hundreds of Pakistani security forces on Monday stopped a 2,000-strong convoy of hard-line Islamists from heading to the scene of a U.S. missile attack, the first time authorities have stepped in to stop mounting anti-American protests. The convoy, led by senior politicians from an opposition religious coalition, was heading to Damadola to protest the Jan. 13 attack that targeted top al-Qaida leaders but also killed 13 civilians, outraging many in this Islamic nation.
Hundreds of armed local police erected barricades at Yukka Ghund, a town about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Damadola, and blocked the convoy, which had set off early Monday from the capital Islamabad, gathering strength along the way and told them to go back.
"We have instructions from the government that these political leaders should not be allowed to go Bajur," said Mohammed Jamil, the region's top government official, referring to the tribal region where Damadola is located. There was no violence but in front of the police line, the traveling protesters chanted, "Down with America!" "Down with Musharraf!" After some of the political leaders made speeches, the convoy headed back.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf is a close ally in Washington's war on terror. The missile strike has intensified opposition among Pakistanis to that alliance and appears to have stoked support for al-Qaida along its lawless border with Afghanistan. Qazi Hussain Ahmad, the president of the opposition Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal or United Action Front, a six-party Islamic coalition, said their rally was peaceful and not meant to cause any trouble.
"We were going to Bajur to condemn the attacks and to prove that Pakistanis are against such acts against our sovereignty," said Ahmad. He demanded Musharraf resign for failing to protect the lives of Pakistani citizens. Pakistani intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, say the attack targeted, but missed, al-Qaida's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, but may have killed four other top al-Qaida members, including a top bomb-maker with a US$5 million bounty on his head.
Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, however, said Sunday there was no proof of that. During a visit to the U.S., he called reports that al-Qaida leaders had been gathering in Damadola as "bizarre." "The area does see movement of people from across the border. But we have not found one body or one shred of evidence that these people were there," Aziz told CNN, adding that Washington failed to inform Pakistani officials of the airstrike in advance.
Also Monday, lawmakers in northwestern Pakistan demanded the government expel U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker in response to the airstrike.
But the unanimous resolution by the provincial assembly, which is controlled by the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal coalition, was unlikely to sway the federal government. Thousands of al-Qaida and Taliban militants, including Osama bin Laden and top lieutenant al-Zawahri, are believed to have sought refuge along the porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Monday's protest follows a gathering of about 5,000 people near Damadola a day earlier. Villagers maintain no members of the terror network were anywhere near the border village when it was hit but on Sunday thousands of protesters flooded the nearby town of Inayat Qala chanting, "Long live Osama bin Laden!"
"This attack has increased our hatred for Americans because they are killing innocent women and children," said Zakir Ullah, one of the demonstrators in Inayat Qala. "We support jihad (holy war). Jihad is the duty of every Muslim," he said.
Despite Aziz's denial that al-Qaida had been meeting in Damadola, Pakistani authorities say they are looking for militants who might have survived the attack, although Pakistan has not visibly stepped up maneuvers in the area. Pakistan says it does not allow U.S. forces to pursue militants across the border from Afghanistan or launch strikes without permission, reports the AP. N.U.