Over a dozen Pakistan police officers and special rangers were taken hostage by supporters of a radical hardline group, after days of violent anti-France protests.
Eleven Pakistani police officers seized by supporters of a hardline religious group as part of their campaign to get the French ambassador expelled have been released.
The officers were grabbed as hostages on 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 the second round of negotiations would take place later Monday, although it is not clear what they will discuss.
The Tehrik-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) group had given the government an April 20 deadline to expel the French ambassador over the publication of blasphemous caricatures in France depicting the Prophet Mohammad. Depictions of the prophets are strictly avoided in Islam. The authorities responded by arresting its leader, prompting supporters to hold protests and sit-ins across Pakistan.
Protest by TLP supporters in Lahore underway right now - severe teargas shelling by the police - can also here shots being fired through the clip pic.twitter.com/ctD8BE3wkt— omar r quraishi (@omar_quraishi) April 18, 2021
A senior police officer and two paramilitary personnel were among the hostages taken by supporters of TLP, Lahore police spokesperson Arif Rana told Reuters on Sunday.
"The TLP activists have two fuel tankers containing thousands of litres of petrol. They are throwing petrol bombs and stones at security officials, and also shooting bullets as the result of which 11 officials are injured," Rana said, adding the operation was ongoing.
TLP told Reuters four supporters had been killed on Sunday by police and several others were wounded.
Pakistani news channels have been barred from providing coverage of the group since it was banned last week, and on Sunday mobile and internet services were down in the area where clashes were taking place.
Roads leading to the headquarters of the group, in Lahore's Chowk Yateemkahan, have been blocked.
My message to extremists abroad who indulge in Islamophobia & racist slurs to hurt & cause pain to 1.3 bn Muslims across the globe: We Muslims have the greatest love & respect for our Prophet PBUH who lives in our hearts. We cannot tolerate any such disrespect & abuse.— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) April 17, 2021
Clashes with police
Still, supporters of TLP have been sharing videos on social media of what they said were clashes on Sunday with police, and hashtags supporting the group were trending in Pakistan on Sunday.
The videos, which Reuters could not independently verify, showed thousands of protesters clashing with police in riot gear, as clouds of tear gas hung in the air and the crackle of gunfire could be heard. Other videos showed injured protesters being carried away.
On Saturday Prime Minister Imran Khan said the group had been banned because it "challenged the writ of the state and used street violence & attacking the public & law enforcers."
Last week France advised its citizens to temporarily leave Pakistan for their safety.
The protests have paralyzed cities and led to the deaths of six policemen.
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.