LAHORE: An outlawed Pakistani Islamist political group freed 11 policemen almost a day after taking them hostage in the eastern city of Lahore amid violent clashes with security forces, the country’s interior minister said Monday.
Supporters of the hardline Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan party attacked a police station near their rallying point and on Sunday took the policemen hostage. The group is protesting the arrest of their leader, Saad Rizvi, and pressuring the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan to immediately expel France’s envoy over the publication of controversial cartoons.
Initially, police said the protesting Islamists held five policemen hostage.
But in a video message, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad said the supporters of Rizvi in fact had taken 11 policemen hostage. They were freed after a successful first round of talks with the government, which released a photo it said showed the officers had been tortured.
In a televised remarks Monday, Khan promised he would run a campaign with the help of other Muslim countries to stop the publication of blasphemous content against Islam in the future. Still, he said it was unfortunate that political and religious parties exploit Islam at the expense of their own countries. The West, he predicted, would not mind if Pakistanis continue fighting.
The tension stems from last year’s remarks by the French leader when he tried to defend the publication of caricatures of Islam’s Prophet by a satirical newspaper, drawing condemnation from across the Muslim world.
Ahmad said the demonstrators since last Monday had blocked roads and highways at 192 places, but security forces cleared their 191 sit-ins in recent days. He hoped the last troubling point in Lahore, where Rizvi’s supporters were still rallying, will be cleared as talks between the representatives of Rizvi and the Punjab government proceed.
Ahmad’s comments came hours after police and paramilitary troops swung batons, fired tear gas and used guns to crack down on demonstrators, killing three Islamists and injuring dozens of others. Authorities say they responded to Rizvi’s supporters’ attack on the police station and capture of the 11 policemen, including Deputy Superintendent Umar Farooq Baluch.
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