ISLAMABAD/LAHORE: The Punjab government said on Friday it had constituted a two-member committee to negotiate with a banned Pakistani religious faction to stop its protest march to the country’s federal capital as the group’s followers clashed with the police in Lahore and killed two uniformed personnel.
The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party started its march on Islamabad Friday afternoon to force the government to release its top leader and expel a European envoy whose country defended the publication of anti-Islam caricatures in the name of free speech.
The Pakistani authorities partially shut down the country’s federal capital and other major cities by blocking several thoroughfares with shipping containers after the TLP leaders threatened to stage a sit-in in Islamabad until their demands were met.
“The Punjab government has formed a committee with senior cabinet members to hold negotiations with TLP,” Hasaan Khawar, the provincial administration’s spokesperson, told Arab News. “We hope that dialogue will resolve this issue.”
The government committee, which consists of provincial law minister Raja Basharat and public prosecution minister Chaudhry Zaheeruddin, will negotiate with the proscribed religious faction.
“We respect everyone’s right to protest, but we hope that people will not try to take law into their own hands,” Khawar said. “If anyone tries to do that, the writ of the government will be enforced. Dialogue is always a better way to resolve such issues.”
However, there was a massive clash between TLP workers and police in Lahore soon after the group instructed its followers to march toward Islamabad.
Armed with batons, rocks and bottles, thousands of TLP activists tried to cross the barriers placed in their way, forcing the police to fire teargas shells, use rubber bullets and resort to aerial firing to disperse the protesters.
Muhammad Arif, a police spokesperson, told Arab News that two of his colleagues deployed in the city had lost their lives during the clashes, adding that casualties could go up since many others were critically wounded.
The TLP group was founded in August 2015 and made the sanctity of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) central to its politics. It has opposed any changes to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws in the past and sought the expulsion of the French ambassador to Pakistan after the repeated publication of caricatures disparaging Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in his country.
The top TLP leader, Saad Rizvi, was arrested in Lahore in April for threatening the government with anti-France rallies. His detention was followed by violent demonstrations by the supporters of his party that lasted for about a week in different cities. According to official figures, six policemen were killed and over 800 people were injured during these protests.
TLP leaders on Thursday announced a “long march,” prompting the authorities to block road networks in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and other major cities.
“Our march has started now from Lahore to Islamabad,” Saddam Bukhari, a TLP spokesperson, told Arab News on Friday afternoon over the phone. “Thousands of people are accompanying us, and we will reach Islamabad to register our protest.”
The district administrations of Rawalpindi and Islamabad have deployed heavy police contingents around the Faizabad Interchange – a busy junction between the two cities – to avert any unpleasant situation.
“Everything is normal so far in Islamabad,” Zia-ul-Qamar, a police spokesperson, told Arab News. “The riot police and other law enforcement personnel are deployed in the city to protect law and order.”
He said no TLP protesters had entered the federal capital until Friday afternoon as the law enforcement personnel were vigilant and prepared to thwart any disruption to public life.
After the TLP gave the protest call, the authorities suspended the Metro Bus service in Rawalpindi and blocked roads to prevent protesters from gathering in large numbers.
The Islamabad Traffic Police (ITP) issued a new traffic plan, asking people commuting to Rawalpindi to use the 9th Avenue and the IJP Road.
Similarly, people who intend to travel from the federal capital to Murree Road have been asked to take the Islamabad Highway instead.
The Jinnah Avenue road from Express Chowk to D-Chowk has been sealed, and citizens have been asked to use NADRA Chowk and Ayub Chowk to enter or exit the city’s Red Zone area.
The Lahore High Court recently declared Rizvi’s detention as illegal while approving a petition filed by his uncle against his continued incarceration.
The Punjab government, however, filed an appeal against the court’s verdict, saying the bench had not considered the intent and purpose of putting the TLP leader’s name in a list of proscribed individuals and entities to ensure the maintenance of public order.
The Punjab government also informed it had intelligence reports that TLP activists were planning a major protest rally in November and were waiting for Rizvi’s release.