(MENAFN - Gulf Times) Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan yesterday asked a radical group to end its violent campaign to oust the French ambassador, saying the unrest was harming the nation.
Rioting has rocked the country for the past week since the leader of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) was detained after calling for a march on the capital to evict France's top diplomat.
The government opened negotiations with the TLP after they freed 11 police abducted during week-long anti-blasphemy protests against France in which four officers were killed, the interior minister said.
The police officers were abducted during clashes outside TLP headquarters in the eastern city of Lahore, which according to the group also killed its three members.
Photographs of the police officers, with their heads, legs and arms heavily bandaged, were posted on social media by their captors.
'They've released the 11 policemen they had held hostage, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad said in a video statement.
He said negotiations with the TLP were under way.
The group has waged an anti-France campaign for months since President Emmanuel Macron defended the right of a satirical magazine in Paris to republish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) — an act deemed blasphemous by Muslims.
Khan said he also wants to stop 'the insult of our Prophet (PBUH) in the name of freedom of speech by western nations, but said he could not expel ambassadors every time it occurred.
'If we keep protesting our whole lives we would only be damaging our own country and it will not impact (the West), Khan said in a recorded address shown on television.
'It doesn't make any difference to France, he added.
The TLP has called for a march on the capital Islamabad, where security has been boosted in recent days, tonight if the ambassador has not been expelled.
France's embassy, which last week sent an urgent advisory recommending French nationals and companies leave the country, sent out a fresh alert yesterday telling its citizens to avoid gatherings.
Khan said a week of protests had caused major disruption to cities, damaged property and left several police officers dead. Lahore police had earlier put the death toll at six.
TLP leaders say several of the party's supporters have also been killed and many wounded in clashes.
Calls for a nationwide strike in solidarity with the protesters was widely supported by mainstream religious groups and in Lahore and Karachi, many shops and markets were closed and some transport services halted.
Few issues are as galvanising in Pakistan as blasphemy, and even the slightest suggestion of an insult to Islam can supercharge protests and unite the country's warring political parties.
Khan's government has struggled to bring the TLP to heel over the years, but this week announced an outright ban against the group.
In his address, he told Pakistanis that he was working with other Muslim nations to 'jointly explain to the West how 'Muslims sentiments are being hurt.
'Expelling the French ambassador would mean cutting ties with European Union, half of our textile export goes to Europe, this means half of our textile exports will be reduced, which means unemployment and closure of the factories, he added.
The embassy is sending home non-essential French staff, a source at the foreign ministry in Paris told AFP.
A source at Punjab governor's office said the TLP in negotiations were demanding the release of their leader Saad Rizvi, whose detention last week sparked the protests, and a vote in parliament on the expulsion of the French ambassador, while the government wants an end to the repeated unrest.
Lahore police said yesterday that TLP supporters were refusing to bury the bodies of supporters being held at the mosque.
Also at the site was an oil tanker seized by crowds on Sunday.
Pakistan's PSX 100 stock exchange opened 500 points down in the morning though recovered later in the day.
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