Supporters of the banned Islamist political party Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) chant slogans during a protest in Lahore, Pakistan April 19, 2021. REUTERS
Islamist radicals in Pakistan on Monday released 11 police abducted during violent anti-blasphemy protests against France over the weekend, the interior minister said as his government opened negotiations with the group after a week of violence.
All main businesses, markets and shopping malls and public transport were closed in major cities in response to a strike call by the Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), prompting the main KSE-100 stock index to open more than 500 points lower.
The police were kidnapped during clashes outside the TLP's headquarters in the eastern city of Lahore. Three TLP members were killed during the violence, according to the Islamists.
Photographs of the police, 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.
"There have been two rounds of the talks, and there will be another later in the evening," Religious Affairs Minister Noor-ul-Haq Qadri told parliament. "We believe in negotiations and reconciliation to sort out issues."
The government outlawed the TLP last week after it blocked main highways, railways and access routes to major cities, attacking police and burning public property. Four police were killed and more than 500 wounded.
The violence erupted after the government detained the TLP leader, Saad Hussain Rizvi, ahead of a planned countrywide anti-France campaign to pressure the government to expel the French ambassador in response to the publication of cartoons in France last year depicting the Prophet Mohammad.
Protests broke out in several Muslim countries over the response in France to the killing of a teacher who showed the cartoons, considered blasphemous by Muslims, during a civics class. The cartoons were re-printed elsewhere.
At the time, Prime Minister Imran Khan's government signed a deal promising to present a resolution in parliament by April 20 to seek approval for the expulsion of the envoy and to endorse a boycott of French products.
France has advised its citizens to leave Pakistan temporarily.
Main markets were closed and public transport was thin in Karachi, the country's financial centre, and in Lahore, the TLP's main base, in response to the strike call.
Karachi police chief Ghulam Nabi Memon told Reuters that it was a partial strike