Thousands of protesters from a banned Islamist group traveled toward Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, Friday in a bid to get their leader released from prison and force the government to expel the French ambassador.
The leader of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), Saad Rizvi, has been in detention since April, when the group’s protests turned violent. The TLP started demanding the expulsion of the French ambassador after the French government expressed support for a French newspaper’s publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that many Muslims found deeply insulting.
The proscribed group started its protest in Lahore last week but decided to march toward the capital when negotiations with the government gridlocked.
Four police officers killed
At a press conference in Islamabad on Friday, Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed said four policemen had been killed and 80 wounded during clashes with the protesters.
“Six to eight of them are in critical condition,” Rasheed said.
The TLP said several of its members had also been killed or wounded.
On Friday, the country’s National Security Committee, chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan and attended by Pakistan’s senior military leaders, decided to uphold the writ of the state at any cost.
The “TLP has crossed the red line and exhausted the state’s patience. … Law will take its course for each one of them and terrorists will be treated like terrorists with no leniency,” tweeted Moeed Yusuf, Pakistan’s national security adviser.
The government has deployed rangers, a paramilitary force, to help police in Punjab province. Together they’ve erected multiple roadblocks and in some places dug trenches to stop the group from marching on the capital.
A large banner placed along the road warned the protesters that the rangers had permission to shoot anyone breaking the law and advised people to return home.
“We cannot let them come to Islamabad. We will try not to use force, but if we have to, we will,” Pakistan’s information minister, Fawad Chaudhry, said on the local Geo TV channel.
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority has ordered all television and radio channels to not report on the protesters.
The government has also suspended mobile phone service in areas the marchers are passing through. Security officials have warned people not to share the group’s messages on social media.
In a WhatsApp audio message obtained by VOA, a senior police official is heard warning people either to exit or dissolve any WhatsApp groups sharing posts of TLP members.
Khan and his party, however, have also come under criticism for supporting the TLP in the past against Khan’s political rival, Nawaz Sharif.