Pakistan radicals release 11 police hostages after anti-France protests

Tehrik-i-Labaik supporters rioted across the country after the group was banned by the government

Pakistan's government banned the TLP after it organised deadly protests. EPA
Pakistan's government banned the TLP after it organised deadly protests. EPA

Eleven Pakistani police officers seized by supporters of a radical group campaigning to get the French ambassador expelled have been released, officials said on Monday.

The officers were taken hostage during the latest violent clashes between police and Tehrik-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) protesters in Lahore.

A video circulating on social media, confirmed by a police source, showed some of the hostages bloodied and bruised, with bandages around their heads.

Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said on 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," Mr Rashid said in a video on Twitter.

Police in Lahore confirmed the release of the hostages, and added that one of the group was a ranger from the country's paramilitary forces.

The officers had been held at a TLP mosque stronghold in Lahore, which remained packed with supporters and surrounded by police.

The group has waged a vocal campaign against France for months since President Emmanuel Macron defended the right of Charlie Hebdo magazine to republish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, 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 at least 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.

TLP supporters are calling on the Pakistani government to expel the French ambassador and cut ties with France. EPA
TLP supporters are calling on the Pakistani government to expel the French ambassador and cut ties with France. EPA

Prime Minister Imran Khan's government has struggled to bring TLP to heel over the years, but last 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, a call that appears to have gone largely unheeded.

The TLP had previously set an April 20 deadline for the ambassador's expulsion.

Interior minister Rashid said a second round of negotiations would take place later on Monday.

Lahore police said on 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.

Published: April 19, 2021 05:46 PM

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