LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) — Violence at an anti-France Islamist rally Wednesday in eastern Pakistan left at least four police officers and two demonstrators dead, officials said. The government deployed paramilitary troops to restore order.
Thousands of supporters of an outlawed radical Islamist party rallied on a highway in the town of Sadhuke as they marched toward the capital Islamabad. They demanded the expulsion of France's envoy to Pakistan over publication of caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in France.
The violence erupted a day after the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan said it would not accept the Islamists' demand to close the French Embassy and expel the French envoy.
Khan's decision infuriated supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan party who over the weekend suspended their march to Islamabad to give the government three days to consider their demands.
Usman Buzdar, chief minister in Punjab province, said in a tweet that the violent clashes left four police dead and 253 injured. He warned of stern action against those responsible for the violence.
Pakistan Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed blamed demonstrators for initiating gunfire and said the government was deploying paramilitary rangers to Punjab for two months. He asked demonstrators to end the protest and return to Lahore to avoid any government action.
Also on Wednesday, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry told a news conference that Rizvi's TLP party will now be treated as a militant organization. He said violent activities of Rizvi's party would not be tolerated and the TLP cannot blackmail the government.
Earlier, Sajid Saifi, a spokesman for Saad Rizvi, the TLP's leader, said two of their supporters died when police opened fire at the rally in Sadhuke. Police say they were not aware of any deaths among demonstrators. However, police said more than 200 supporters of the TLP party were detained in a crackdown aimed at containing the spread of violence to other parts of the province.
Rallygoers have also been demanding Rizvi's release from prison. He was arrested last year during previous protests against France over the caricatures.
Rizvi's party started demanding the expulsion of French envoy in October 2020 when French President Emmanuel Macron tried to defend caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad as freedom of expression. Macron’s those comments came after a young Muslim beheaded a French school teacher who had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in class. The images were 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 who believe those depictions were blasphemous.
Since then, Rizvi's party had been threatening a march toward Islamabad, which it launched last week amid clashes that killed at least five people, including two police officers, in the city of Lahore.
Rizvi’s party gained prominence in Pakistan’s 2018 elections, campaigning on the single issue of defending the country’s blasphemy law, which calls for the death penalty for anyone who insults Islam.
Ahmed reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writer Asim Tanveer contributed from Multan, Pakistan.