At least two Pakistani police officers and two protesters were killed in clashes that erupted between security forces and supporters of the banned Islamist Tehrik-e Labaik Pakistan (TLP) party in the eastern city of Lahore on October 22, a police spokesman and witnesses said.
The clashes broke out as thousands of TLP sympathizers launched their "long march" from the city toward the capital, Islamabad, demanding that the government release TLP chief Saad Rizvi, arrested last year amid demonstrations against France over the publishing of caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. They also demanded the expulsion of France’s ambassador.
A TLP leader, Raja Danish Bakhtiar, told RFE/RL that the group decided to hold the march to Islamabad after the government failed to respond to its demands despite two weeks of peaceful protests in Lahore.
Clashes broke out as authorities deployed police and paramilitary personnel to prevent the demonstrators from leaving Lahore, and suspended cellular service in parts of the city and blocked roads. Lahore is located about 350 kilometers from Islamabad, and most of the rallygoers are walking.
Pakistani police also used shipping containers to block all major arteries leading to Islamabad and its twin city, Rawalpindi, deploying heavy contingents of officers.
The government in April banned the TLP after the group waged violent protest rallies and an anti-France campaign in November 2020. The wave of protests came after French President Emmanuel Macron defended the right of a satirical magazine to republish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad -- an act deemed blasphemous by many Muslims.
Pakistani police detained thousands of protesters during clashes, including Rizvi.
The TLP wants the government to introduce a bill in parliament to expel the French ambassador to Pakistan and the authorities to release “all our arrested leaders and withdraw police cases against them," he said.
The opposition Pakistan Democratic Alliance (PDM) is also holding protest rallies across Punjab Province, of which Lahore is the capital, against soaring inflation.
Interior Minister Shaikh Rashid Ahmad on October 21 urged the protesters to remain peaceful and warned that the government will act decisively if any group or individual tried to violate the laws.
On October 1, the Lahore High Court ruled Rizvi's arrest illegal and ordered his release -- a decision the government has challenged before the Supreme Court.