Angry protesters in major cities reacted after police arrested Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan leader Saad Rizvi for threatening to hold protests if the government did not expel French ambassador over depictions of Prophet Muhammad.

Police officers move to disperse the supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) political party during a protest against the arrest of their leader in Karachi, Pakistan April 13, 2021.
Police officers move to disperse the supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) political party during a protest against the arrest of their leader in Karachi, Pakistan April 13, 2021. (Reuters)

At least three people, including a police officer, have been killed as protests against the arrest of a religious party leader continued in several cities of Pakistan.

The policeman was killed in overnight clashes with the supporters of Saad Rizvi, the head of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan who was arrested on Monday in Lahore, a senior police officer Ghulam Mohammad Dogar said. 

Ten policemen were also wounded in these clashes in the town of Shahadra near Lahore.

Two demonstrators were reportedly killed in the eastern Punjab province. The violence 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 Dogar, the arrest was aimed at maintaining law and order. But Rizvi’s detention quickly sparked violent protests by religious groups in cities around the country. The protesters blocked highways and roads in several cities.

The deadly clashes come two 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 to 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 in the eastern city of Lahore could not clear a main highway and roads. Thousands of people were stranded in their vehicles.

Monday's clashes initially erupted in Lahore, the capital of eastern Punjab province.

The TLP in video statement released reiterated its demand from the government to expel the French envoy and said that a grand march would be initiated in case the government failed to meet its April 20 deadline.

READ MORE: The rise of the new cleric in Pakistan

Covid-19 oxygen disruption

Thousands of supporters of a Pakistan religious party who blocked major roads to protest the arrest of their leader also disrupted critical oxygen supplies for Covid-19 patients, health officials said Tuesday.

Yasmin Rashid, a leading health official in Punjab, said the disruption of oxygen supplies during protests Monday night had been a "crisis".

"Please do not block roads for ambulances and for visitors to the hospitals. Some ambulances are carrying oxygen cylinders, which are extremely essential for Covid patients," Rashid said.

Punjab pandemic point-man Asad Aslam said several hospitals had faced oxygen shortages Monday night, but the situation had stabilised after roads were cleared by authorities.

Pakistan is in the grip of a deadly third wave of the coronavirus with a shortage of vaccines.

READ MORE: Pakistan blames WHO-backed COVAX for delay in its vaccination drive

Calls to boycott France

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 supporters have previously held violent rallies in Pakistan to pressure the government not to repeal the country’s controversial blasphemy laws.

Rizvi's 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 religious 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 believed those depictions were blasphemous.

Rizvi's party also has a history of staging protests and sit-ins to pressure the government to accept its demands. In November 2017, Rizvi’s followers staged a 21-day protest and sit-in after a reference to the sanctity of the Prophet Muhammad was removed from the text of a government form.

READ MORE: Macron seeks French cabinet backing for law seen 'anti-Muslim'

Source: TRTWorld and agencies