Pakistani authorities deployed paramilitary forces in Islamabad and shopkeepers shut early as thousands of supporters of an Islamist group converged on the capital to protest the decision to reopen NATO supply routes.
The rally by about 8,000 members of the Difah-e-Pakistan Council, or Defense of Pakistan Council, a movement of parties with links to the Taliban and other extremist groups, began yesterday in the eastern city of Lahore. Protesters plan to demonstrate in front of parliament later today after completing the 300-kilometer (185-mile) journey, according to the Associated Press.
“The opening of NATO supply routes is a violation of parliament resolutions,” Maulana Samiul Haq, a senior leader of the council, said in a speech in Lahore yesterday that was broadcast by television channels. “This long march will free our nation from rulers who are just serving U.S. interests.”
Trucks carrying supplies for U.S.-led forces fighting in neighboring Afghanistan began crossing the border from Pakistan last week after a seven-month blockade. The routes were reopened after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton apologized for the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a November border strike by American helicopters.
Relations between the U.S. and Pakistan have been battered by a series of disputes as the Obama administration plans its exit from the 11-year war in neighboring Afghanistan. Pakistan’s parliament called for a halt to missile attacks by U.S. unmanned drone aircraft as it debated future ties with the government in Washington. The U.S. has demanded Pakistan stop guerrillas based on its soil from attacking international coalition troops across the frontier.
$100 Million a Month
Police and paramilitary forces have been deployed in Islamabad to provide security, state-run Associated Press of Pakistan cited Rehman Malik, a senior adviser to the Interior Ministry, as saying. Barbed-wire barriers were installed on main roads leading to the parliament.
Other council leaders include Hafiz Saeed, founder of the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group which India blames for plotting the 2008 raid on Mumbai, Hamid Gul, a retired Pakistani intelligence chief with a long history of supporting militants, and Syed Munawar Hasan, leader of Pakistan’s most powerful Islamist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami.
The closing of the Pakistani supply routes forced the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to send material and equipment into Afghanistan from the north, through Central Asia, at an added cost that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has estimated at about $100 million a month.
For Pakistan’s government of newly installed Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, which faces parliamentary elections by early next year, agreeing to allow the resumption of NATO convoys carries political risks. A June 27 survey of attitudes by the Pew Research Center found that 74 percent of Pakistanis considered the U.S. to be an enemy, up from 69 percent in 2011.
U.S.-led coalition troops in Afghanistan are aiming to weaken the Taliban insurgent movement before handing over security responsibilities to Afghan forces ahead of a withdrawal from the country in 2014.
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