LAHORE: Prominent Pakistani hardliners who oppose their country's anti-terror alliance with Washington led thousands of people in a protest Sunday against Pakistan's decision to allow the US and other Nato countries to resume shipping troop supplies through the country to Afghanistan.
The demonstration in the eastern city of Lahore was organized by the Difa-i-Pakistan Council (DPC), a group of right-wing politicians and religious leaders who have been the most vocal opponents of the supply line.
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-kilometre journey from the eastern city of Lahore to Islamabad.
Pakistan closed the route in November in retaliation for American airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani troops. After months of negotiations, Islamabad finally agreed to reopen the route last week after the US apologized for the deaths.
“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 organisers' 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 USA to not only leave Afghanistan, but Pakistan also,” the DPC 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.
Maulana Samiul Haq also said that the rally will be peaceful, but at the same time also warned that if it was stopped in Islamabad, then they will turn the capital city's D-Chowk into a Tahrir Square.
The DPC 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 leaders of Difa-i-Pakistan stood in the back of a truck at the head of the convoy.
They plan to link up with thousands more supporters on the city's edge and ride to Islamabad, passing through Muridke and Gujranwala, in a so-called "long march" against the supply line.
The Difa-i-Pakistan rally has now reached Gujranwala, DawnNews reported.
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 believe that (the) US should leave Afghanistan and Pakistan, they should come out of their homes and join us,” he said.
“Our aim is not just withdrawal of US from Afghanistan, but US stooges and slaves in Pakistan should also leave.”
Other prominent leaders included Hamid Gul, a retired Pakistani intelligence chief with a long history of militant support, Chief of Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) Munawar Hassan and Chief of Awami Muslim League Shaikh Rasheed Ahmed.
Supporters showered them with rose petals as they passed. Many demonstrators rode on the tops of buses, waving party flags and shouting slogans against the US and Nato. ''One solution for America, jihad, jihad!'' they shouted.
The crowd was dominated by members of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, widely believed to be a front group for Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is blamed for the attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008 that killed more than 160 people.
Jamaat-ud-Dawa is led by the group's founder, Saeed.
''We want to show the rulers that people of Pakistan are against its decision, and we want to show the world that the rulers' decision is not a reflection of the people's will,'' said Jamaat-ud-Dawa spokesman Yahya Mujahid.
The US announced a $10 million bounty earlier this year for information leading to the arrest or conviction of Saeed, but he operates freely in the country.
Pakistan says it doesn't have enough evidence to arrest Saeed, but many suspect the government is reluctant to move against him and other militant leaders because they have longstanding ties with the Pakistani military and intelligence service.
Although the army was outraged by the US attack on its troops, which Washington said was an accident, it was eager to repair the relationship to free up more than $1 billion in military aid that had been frozen for the past year.
While the supply line through Pakistan was closed, the US was forced to rely on a longer, more costly route that runs into Afghanistan through Central Asia. The route cost the US an extra $100 million per month.
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.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Pakistani counterpart Hina Rabbani Khar meanwhile Sunday 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.