Activists and supporters of The Defence of Pakistan coalition sit on vehicles in Lahore on July 8 as they protest in Islamabad. Pakistan's Islamists have begun a "long march" to Islamabad to protest the reopening of a NATO supply route to Afghanistan. (Arif Ali / AFP)
LAHORE, Pakistan — Pakistani Islamists who oppose their country’s anti-terror alliance with Washington began a “long march” to Islamabad on July 8 to protest the reopening of NATO supply routes to Afghanistan.
Thousands of people joined a convoy of buses, trucks and cars, many carrying the black and white striped flags of the Defence of Pakistan coalition, on the 275-kilometer (170-mile) journey from the eastern city of Lahore to Islamabad.
Pakistan reopened overland routes to NATO convoys on July 3 after closing them in November in protest of a U.S. air raid that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
“Some 25,000 people have joined us at the start of (the) long march and many more would join on the way, while we have 3,000 people with us who are performing security duties,” the organizers’ spokesman Yahya Mujahid told AFP.
Police, however, estimated up to 8,000 people were taking part.
“This is the beginning of our struggle. We want the U.S.A. to not only leave Afghanistan, but Pakistan also,” Defence of Pakistan coalition chairman Maulana Samiul Haq said at a rally before the convoy set off.
“This movement will continue ‘til the government severs all contacts with United States and NATO,” Haq said.
The Defence of Pakistan coalition has attracted large turnouts at recent rallies across the country, which some see as a build up to the formation of a political party to contest the next general election, widely expected within the next year.
The convoy is scheduled to reach Islamabad by the evening of July 9.
Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, founder of the Islamist group Lashkar-e-Taiba blamed for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, urged Pakistanis to join the protest.
“All the people who believe that (the) U.S. should leave Afghanistan and Pakistan, they should come out of their homes and join us,” he said.
“Our aim is not just withdrawal of U.S. from Afghanistan, but U.S. stooges and slaves in Pakistan should also leave.”
The prime minister’s advisor on interior affairs Rehman Malik said an elaborate security plan had been put in place for the security of the protestors.
“Four helicopters would do surveillance and two others would be on standby for rescue, while closed circuit cameras have been installed for the security of the participants,” Malik told reporters in Islamabad.
“They are patriotic Pakistanis and they want to register their protest and we have given permission to them to do it peacefully,” Malik said.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Pakistani counterpart Hina Rabbani Khar on July 8 hailed the reopening of the supply routes, saying the allies were putting past tensions behind them.
“We are both encouraged that we have been able to put the recent difficulties behind us so we can focus on the many challenges ahead,” Clinton said on the sidelines of a conference on Afghanistan held in Tokyo.