Radical Islamist party frees 11 Pakistani police hostages

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Police officers stand guard at a deserted road due to strikes called by the the country's religious political parties over the security forces's crackdown against a banned Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan party, in Karachi, Pakistan, Monday, April 19, 2021. An outlawed Pakistani Islamist political group freed 11 policemen almost a day after taking them hostage in the eastern city of Lahore amid violent clashes with security forces, the country's interior minister said Monday. (AP Photo/Fareed Khan)

LAHORE – An outlawed Pakistani Islamist political group freed 11 police a day after taking them hostage in the eastern city of Lahore amid violent clashes with security forces, the country’s interior minister said Monday.

Supporters of the hard-line Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan party attacked a police station near their rallying point Sunday and took the police officers hostage. The group is protesting the arrest of their leader, Saad Rizvi, and pressuring Prime Minister Imran Khan to expel France's ambassador over the publication in France of controversial cartoons depicting Islam's Prophet Muhammad.

Initially, police said the protesting Islamists held five police hostage.

But in a video message, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad said Rizvi's supporters in fact had taken 11 police hostage. They were freed after a successful first round of talks with the government, which released a photo it said showed the officers had been tortured.

In televised remarks Monday, Khan promised he would work with other Muslim countries to stop the publication of content deemed blasphemous to Islam in the future. But he said it was unfortunate that political and religious parties exploit Islam at the expense of their own countries. The West, he said, would not mind if Pakistanis continue their infighting.

In a televised address later Khan defended his decision not to expel the French envoy, saying it could affect Pakistan's trade ties with the European Union.

The tensions originated with last year's remarks by France's president who defended as a freedom of speech issue the publication of caricatures of Islam's Prophet by a satirical newspaper, drawing condemnation from across the Muslim world.

Ahmad, Pakistan's interior minister, said demonstrators since last Monday had blocked roads and highways in 192 places, but security forces cleared their 191 sit-ins in recent days. He said he hoped the last trouble spot in Lahore, where Rizvi's supporters were still rallying, would soon be cleared as talks between Rizvi's representatives and the Punjab government proceed.