Police officers stand guard outside the French consulate in Karachi, Pakistan on April 15, 2021. French Government advised all French nationals and companies to temporarily leave the country, after violent anti-France protests parallyzed large parts of the country last week. Photo: AFP / Sabir Mazhar / Anadolu Agency

Eleven Pakistani police officers seized by supporters of a radical Islamist group as part of their campaign to get the French ambassador expelled have been released, officials said Monday.

The officers were grabbed as hostages Sunday by supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) during violent protests in Lahore.

Video circulating on social media – and confirmed unofficially by police as genuine – showed some of them bloodied and bruised, with bandages around their heads.

Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said the police had been released early Monday after “negotiations” with the TLP, which the government banned last week after effectively labelling it a terrorist organisation.

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

“Negotiations have been started with TLP; the first round completed successfully,” said Rashid in a video on Twitter.

“They have released 11 policemen who were made hostages.”

He said a second round of negotiations would take place later Monday, although it is not clear what they will discuss.

Previously the TLP had set an April 20 deadline for the expulsion of the French ambassador.

The group has been behind an anti-France campaign for months since President Emmanuel Macron defended the right of Charlie Hebdo magazine to republish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad — an act deemed blasphemous by many Muslims.

Rioting has rocked the country for the last week since the leader of the now-banned Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) was detained in the second biggest city, Lahore, after calling for the expulsion of the French ambassador.

The protests have paralyzed cities and led to the deaths of six policemen, prompting the French embassy to recommend all its nationals temporarily leave the country.

Firdous Ashiq Awan, a spokeswoman for the Punjab provincial government, on Sunday described the incident in which policemen had been abducted

“Violent groups armed with petrol bombs and acid bottles stormed the Nawankot police station this morning,” she tweeted, adding that six police officers had died in clashes this week.

A video circulating online – the authenticity of which has been confirmed to AFP by Lahore city police – shows a senior police officer with a blood stained bandage wrapped around his head being held at the mosque. 

The deputy superintendent, the third most senior officer from the raided station, speaks to the camera with an expressionless face. 

The camera then swings round to show wounded TLP supporters gathered on the floor.

Tear gas and stone throwing

TLP leaders say several of the party’s supporters were killed in Sunday’s clashes.

“We won’t bury them until the French ambassador is kicked out,” Allama Muhammad Shafiq Amini, a TLP leader in the city, said in a video statement. The party has given the government an April 20 deadline to act.

Muhammad Shabir, an injured TLP protester, said supporters had been staging a peaceful sit-in when they were attacked by police. 

“They fired directly at us and threw acidic water. Some men had their chest burned, others their back, face or whole body,” he told AFP.

“The government of Pakistan has done a big injustice to us.”

The police said they had not attempted a clearance operations and had acted in self defense. They would not comment on the reported TLP deaths. 

An oil truck was seized and petrol bombs thrown at officers, both Arif and Awan said. 

An AFP reporter at the scene said police used tear gas against stone-throwing protesters.

Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said TLP supporters had blocked 191 sites over the past week, with the mosque in Lahore now a gathering point. 

“No negotiations are taking place, [we] tried for two-three months but they are not ready to backtrack from their agenda and the government has no other choice but to establish its writ,” he said at a press conference. 

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 – effectively labelling it a terrorist outfit.

Still, on Saturday he suggested the party hadn’t been banned for its ideology, but rather its methods.

“Let me make clear to people here & abroad: Our govt only took action against TLP under our anti-terrorist law when they challenged the writ of the state and used street violence & attacking the public & law enforcers,” he tweeted.

Khan said insulting the prophet hurt Muslims around the world.  

“We cannot tolerate any such disrespect & abuse,” he added.

Pakistan on Friday blocked social media and instant messaging platforms for several hours to head off major protests.

Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in conservative Pakistan, where laws allow for the death penalty to be used on anyone deemed to have insulted Islam or Islamic figures.

The French embassy’s call for its nationals to leave Pakistan appears to have gone largely unheeded so far.

– AFP