Three policemen shot dead at banned party’s rally in Pakistan

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At least three Pakistani policemen were shot dead and 70 more wounded when supporters of a banned Iparty opened fire at a rally on Wednesday, the country’s interior minister said.

The outlawed Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has been behind major anti-France protests that earlier this year led to the embassy issuing a warning for all French citizens to leave the country.

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The group is protesting over the detention of its leader Saad Rizvi, arrested in April when the TLP was outlawed, and demanding the expulsion of the French ambassador.

“They opened fire on police with Kalashnikovs... three policemen were martyred,” Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad told a press conference, adding that eight of those injured were in a critical condition.

The Punjab police chief Rao Sardar Ali Khan said in a separate press conference that four officers died on Wednesday.

The TLP in turn accused the police of firing on the crowd, with four of its supporters killed.

Police in Punjab province, of which Lahore is the capital, have denied using rubber bullets or guns and would not comment on claims that protesters had died.

“We have used no such weapons against them,” police spokesman Mazhar Hussain told AFP.

The latest demonstration began on Friday in the group’s stronghold city of Lahore, from where thousands of people have begun slowly moving towards the capital Islamabad.

Clashes between the two sides in Lahore on Friday left two police officers dead, while the TLP reported on Saturday that five of its supporters had died.

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry on Wednesday said Prime Minister Imran Khan and the security services had agreed to treat the TLP as a militant group.

Police have closed off major roads and junctions leading to the capital, around 300 kilometers from the current protest site.

The government had earlier this week announced a breakthrough in talks with the TLP, but the march resumed on Wednesday.

“We tried our best for the success of the talks but the government is not serious about fulfilling its commitments,” TLP spokesman Sajjad Saifi said.

“The expulsion of the French ambassador is our main demand.”

Rizvi was arrested in April when Pakistan’s government outlawed the party in response to violent anti-France protests.

The TLP has waged an anti-France campaign since President Emmanuel Macron defended the right of a satirical magazine to republish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed -- an act deemed blasphemous by many Muslims.

Six police officers were killed in the protests which paralyzed Islamabad and the neighboring garrison city of Rawalpindi.

Few issues are as galvanizing in Pakistan as blasphemy, and even the slightest suggestion of an insult to Islam can supercharge protests, incite lynchings, and unite most of the country’s warring political parties.

Read more: Deadly clashes as banned Pakistan party continues protest seeking to free leader

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