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Pakistan Officials Downplay Anti-drone Protests

Supporters of the Pakistan Defense Council, a coalition of Islamic parties, take part in a rally to condemn U.S. drone attacks in Pakistani tribal areas, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013 in Lahore, Pakistan.
Pakistan’s national security adviser has downplayed anti-drone protests that led to a suspension of U.S. military cargo shipments in and out of Afghanistan through Pakistan's northwest. Sartaj Aziz also confirmed that Afghan peace negotiators were allowed late last month to meet with a former deputy leader of the Taliban based in Pakistan.

Activists of an opposition party led by former cricket star Imran Khan have been staging daily demonstrations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and have pledged to do so until the United States ends drone attacks on Pakistani soil.

The protesters assemble in the morning at different places along the main road leading to the Afghan border and allow only non-NATO trucks to travel farther. Amid the protests, the United States decided this week to suspend ground shipments of its cargo through the northwestern Pakistani region, citing security concerns.

Khan’s party spokesperson on Wednesday declared the protests “a tactical success” and again demanded that the federal government join the protest to force the United States to end drone attacks.

The drone issue has become a growing source of tension between the U.S. and Pakistan. The U.S. says the attacks target militants whose aims are to disrupt U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan.

The province is one of the two land routes the U.S.-led NATO coalition uses to ferry non-lethal supplies to its forces in Afghanistan. The second one goes through Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province.

Both routes are increasingly being used to ship military equipment out of Afghanistan because the bulk of international forces plan to leave that country by end of next year.

Pakistan’s adviser on national security and foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, Wednesday dismissed speculation that the protests could undermine the planned departure of international forces.

He said that there is nothing to worry about because the Americans suspended shipments only from one route. He said NATO-bound traffic is moving smoothly through Baluchistan.

The national security adviser spoke a day after he met with the U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, James Dobbins, in Islamabad.

Officials say that Aziz again urged Washington to review its drone policy and underscored its “negative impact on the government’s efforts to bring peace and stability in Pakistan and the region.”

The central government led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is also critical of the drone attacks but is opposed to efforts to block NATO supplies, warning protesters the action could isolate Pakistan internationally.

Meanwhile, speaking to VOA, Aziz says he hopes for positive outcomes of the role Pakistan is playing to promote international peace efforts in Afghanistan.

“It is still uncertain but there is so much pressure internationally, regionally and within Afghanistan that there should be stability and peace that one should hope we will have positive results,” he explained.

He also confirmed that Islamabad facilitated a meeting last month between members of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council and the former deputy leader of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. But Aziz declined to discuss further details.

The council is tasked with persuading the Taliban to end violence to come to the table for peace talks.