Pakistan forces try to clear sit-ins by protesting Islamists

LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistani security forces swinging batons and firing teargas moved before dawn Wednesday to clear sit-ins by protesting Islamists in the garrison city of Rawalpindi and elsewhere after five people died in earlier clashes, officials said.

The government action comes two days after the arrest of Saad Rizvi, head of the Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan party, sparked protests by his supporters.

Police cleared a key road that was blocked by demonstrators on the outskirts of Islamabad. But they were still trying to bring the situation under control in Rawalpindi, Lahore and elsewhere, officials said.

Two police officers and three other people have been killed in the violence which began Monday after police arrested Rizvi for threatening protests if the government did not expel France’s ambassador over depictions of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

According to police, Rizvi’s arrest was aimed at maintaining law and order. But Rizvi’s detention quickly sparked violent protests by Islamists. The protesters blocked highways and roads in several cities.

The deadly clashes come three days after Rizvi in a statement asked the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan to honor what he said was a commitment it made in February. He said Khan promised his party to expel the French envoy before April 20 over the publication in France of depictions of Islam’s Prophet. However, the government has said it only committed to discussing the matter in Parliament.

The reaction from Rizvi’s supporters against his arrest was so swift that police could not clear main highways and roads. Thousands of people were stranded in their vehicles. Monday’s clashes initially erupted in Lahore and later spread to other cities, including the southern port city of Karachi.

Rizvi emerged as the leader of the Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan party in November after the sudden death of his father, Khadim Hussein Rizvi. His party wants the government to boycott French products and expel the French ambassador under an agreement signed by the government with Rizvi’s party in February.

Tehreek-e-Labiak and other Islamist parties have 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.

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Ahmed reported from Islamabad.

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