Pakistan’s Islamists who oppose their country’s anti-terror alliance with Washington began Sunday a “long march” to Islamabad to protest .
Thousands of people joined a convoy of buses, trucks and cars, many carrying the black and white striped flags of the Defense of Pakistan coalition, in the 275-kilometres (170-mile) journey from the eastern city of Lahore to Islamabad.
Pakistan resumed the overland route to NATO convoys on Tuesday after closing them in protest at a U.S. air raid that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November.
Organizers and police put different figures on the turnout.
“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 three thousand people with us who are performing security duties,” the organizers’ spokesman Yahya Mujahid told AFP.
Police estimated up to 8,000 people were taking part.
“This is the beginning of our struggle. We want the USA to not only leave Afghanistan, but Pakistan also,” Defense of Pakistan coalition chairman Maulana Samiul Haq said at a rally before the convoy set off.
“This movement will continue till the government severs all contacts with United States and NATO,” Haq said.
The Defense 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 Pakistan’s next general election, widely expected within the next year.
The convoy is scheduled to reach Islamabad by Monday evening.
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 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.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Pakistani counterpart Hina Rabbani Khar meanwhile Sunday hailed the re-opening of the key supply route, 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 being held in Tokyo.