Four Pakistani police officers were killed and hundreds injured when armed activists from a banned group clashed with security forces at a blasphemy demonstration near the eastern city of Lahore, officials said.
Clashes erupted Wednesday at a rally of the far-right Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party on a highway in Sheikhupura, just outside Lahore, as the group prepared to march on the capital Islamabad.
The TLP is protesting against the detention of its leader Saad Rizvi, arrested in April when the group was outlawed by authorities, and is seeking the expulsion of the French ambassador for publishing a series of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad by a French satirical magazine.
Rao Sardar Ali Khan, the Punjab police inspector general, said four officers were killed and at least 263 were injured.
Earlier, Sajid Saifi, a Rizvi spokesman, said two TLP supporters died when police opened fire on the rally in Sadhuke. Police said they were unaware of any deaths among the demonstrators.
However, police said more than 200 TLP party supporters were arrested in a crackdown aimed at curbing the spread of violence in other parts of the province.
Police said TLP activists armed with pistols and automatic weapons, including AK-47 rifles, opened fire on security forces controlling the demonstrators.
After days of tension, including a clash last week in which three police officers were killed, the interior ministry on Wednesday ordered the deployment of paramilitary guards under anti-terrorism laws.
“They will be there for 60 days. “I have given them the authority to go wherever they want to Punjab,” Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad told reporters.
“I’m still warning the TLP to withdraw.”
Pakistani Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said the government would use force to block TLP activists from entering the capital, Islamabad.
“We have shown restraint so far, but the challenge to state authority can no longer be tolerated,” he told reporters.
“The government will no longer treat TLP as a political entity. Instead, we will treat it as a militant group. “It has already been declared a banned organization,” said Chaudhry.
Groups along Grand Trunk Road were stopped, where the city administration had already placed transport containers to block entry and exit roads.
The government earlier this week announced progress in talks with the TLP, but the march resumed on Wednesday.
“We did our best for the success of the talks, but the government is not serious in fulfilling its commitments,” said TLP spokesman Saifi.
“The expulsion of the French ambassador is our main demand.”
This is the group’s third nationwide protest campaign since 2017 over cartoons deemed deeply offensive by Muslims.
French magazine Charlie Hebdo first published the cartoons in 2006 and republished them last year to mark the opening of a trial over a deadly attack on its Paris offices by gunmen in 2015.
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