Eleven Pakistani police officers seized by supporters of a radical Islamist group campaigning to get the French ambassador expelled have been released, officials said Monday.
The officers were grabbed and taken as hostages during the latest violent clashes between police and Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan protesters in Lahore.
A video circulating on social media, confirmed by a police source, showed some of them bloodied and bruised, with bandages around their heads.
Interior minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said early Monday that ‘11 policemen who were made hostages’ had been released after talks with the TLP, which the government banned last week after effectively labelling it a terrorist organisation.
‘Negotiations have been started with TLP; the first round completed successfully,’ said Rashid in a video on Twitter.
Lahore police confirmed the release of the hostages, adding that one of the group was a ranger from the country’s paramilitary force.
The officers had been held at a TLP mosque stronghold in Lahore, which is now packed with supporters and surrounded by police.
The group has waged an anti-France campaign for months since president Emmanuel Macron defended the right of Charlie Hebdo magazine to republish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed (SM)—an act deemed blasphemous by many Muslims.
Rioting has rocked the country for the past week since the leader of the TLP was detained in Lahore after calling for a march on the capital to evict the French ambassador.
The protests have paralysed cities and led to the deaths of six policemen.
TLP leaders say several of the party’s supporters have also been killed and many wounded in clashes.
Calls for a nationwide strike in solidarity with the TLP has been widely supported by mainstream religious groups.
On Monday, shops and markets in Lahore and Karachi were closed and some transport services halted.
Few issues are as galvanising in Pakistan as blasphemy, and even the slightest suggestion of an insult to Islam can supercharge protests, incite lynchings, and unite the country’s warring political parties.
‘The government has resorted to shedding blood of innocent people. The protesters are raising their voice rightfully and we support that,’ said Sharjeel Goplani, the head of a business association in Karachi, who supports the expulsion of the French ambassador.
Prime minister Imran Khan’s government has struggled to bring the TLP to heel over the years, but this week announced an outright ban against the group.
On Monday he called for an end to the violence.
‘We all have the same objective—to safeguard the honour of our Prophet but we must remember that we cannot make the West realise how it hurts us when they disgrace our Prophet by causing damage to our national property, life and honour,’ he said at an event in the capital Islamabad, where security has been stepped up.
Last week the French embassy in Pakistan advised its nationals to leave the country temporarily—a call that appears to have gone largely unheeded by privately-employed citizens.
The embassy, however, has begun sending home non-essential French staff, a source at the French foreign ministry in Paris told AFP.
Previously the TLP had set an April 20 deadline for the ambassador’s expulsion.
The government has carried out two rounds of negotiations wit the TLP, with a third due Monday night.
A source at Punjab governor’s office said the TLP were demanding the release of their leader Saad Rizvi, whose detention last week sparked the protests, and a vote in parliament on the expulsion of the French ambassador, while a government wants an end to the repeated unrest.
Lahore police said Monday that TLP supporters were refusing to bury the dead bodies of supporters being held at the mosque.
Also at the site was an oil tanker seized by crowds on Sunday.
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