LAHORE, Pakistan — 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.
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.
Upon the hostages’ release, the government made public a group photo of the former captives with bandages on their heads, hands or on arms. According to the police, the kidnapped police officers were tortured by Rizvi’s men.
Angered over the operation of security forces against Rizvi’s supporters, the country’s religious political parties have announced a nationwide strike, asking transporters to stay away from roads and urging businessmen to keep markets closed on Monday. The appeal drew a partial response, but businesses were closed in Lahore and Karachi, the capital of southern Sindh province and elsewhere.
Tensions have been high in Pakistan since last week when Rizvi’s supporters paralyzed normal life in various parts of the country by blocking highways, in clashes with police that left four officers dead. So far at least six demonstrators have also died, prompting the government to order the media not to give any coverage to Rizvi’s outlawed party.
Representatives of journalists have denounced government censorship on the news coverage.
Rizvi was arrested a day after he asked the government to honor what he said was a commitment it made in February to his party to expel by April 20 the French envoy over the publication in France of depictions of Islam’s Prophet.
Rizvi’s party said the government agreed to a deal under which it would expel the French ambassador before April 20. Instead, the government arrested their leader before the deadline. The government said that it only committed to discussing the matter in Parliament.
Rizvi’s party supports the country’s controversial blasphemy laws and has a history of staging violent rallies to influence the government. It has denounced French President Emmanuel Macron since October last year, saying he tried to defend caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad as freedom of expression. Macron’s comments came after a young Muslim beheaded a French school teacher who had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in class.
The images had been republished by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo to mark the opening of the trial over the deadly 2015 attack against the publication for the original caricatures. That enraged many Muslims in Pakistan and elsewhere who believe those depictions were blasphemous.
Ahmed reported from Islamabad