Pakistan: 11 police hostages released after anti-France protests

Lahore, Pakistan: Eleven Pakistani police officers seized by supporters of a radical Islamist group as part of their campaign to get the French ambassador expelled have been released, officials said Monday.

The officers were grabbed as hostages Sunday by supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) during violent protests in Lahore.

Video circulating on social media -- and confirmed unofficially by police as genuine -- showed some of them bloodied and bruised, with bandages around their heads.

Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said the police had been released early Monday after "negotiations" with the TLP, which the government banned last week after effectively labeling it a terrorist organization.

The officers had been held at a TLP mosque stronghold in Lahore, which is now packed with supporters and surrounded by police.

"Negotiations have been started with TLP; the first round completed successfully," said Rashid in a video on Twitter.

"They have released 11 policemen who were made hostages."

He said the second round of negotiations would take place later Monday, although it is not clear what they will discuss.

Previously the TLP had set an April 20 deadline for the expulsion of the French ambassador.

The group has been behind an anti-France campaign for months since President Emmanuel Macron defended the right of Charlie Hebdo magazine to republish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad -- an act deemed blasphemous by many Muslims.

Protests paralyze cities

Last week the embassy in Pakistan advised its nationals to leave the country -- a call that appears to have gone largely unheeded.

"The TLP people have gone inside the Mosque and the police have also stepped back," said Rashid.

"Hopefully, the rest of the issues will be settled in the second round."

Rioting has rocked the country for the past week since the leader of the TLP was detained in Lahore after calling for a march on the capital.

The protests have paralyzed cities and led to the deaths of six policemen.

TLP leaders say several of the party's supporters were killed in Sunday's clashes.

"We won't bury them until the French ambassador is kicked out," Allama Muhammad Shafiq Amini, a TLP leader in the city, said in a video statement.

Prime Minister Imran Khan's government has struggled to bring TLP to heel over the years, but this week announced an outright ban against the group -- effectively labeling it a terrorist outfit.

Still, on Saturday he suggested the party hadn't been banned for its ideology, but rather its methods.

"Let me make clear to people here & abroad: Our govt only took action against TLP under our anti-terrorist law when they challenged the writ of the state and used street violence & attacking the public & law enforcers," he tweeted.

What happened? 

The French community in Pakistan was torn between disbelief, fear, and annoyance in reaction to their embassy's call for them to leave the country after Francophobic rioting by an extremist Islamic party.

Most, it seems, have decided to stay put.

In a terse three-line email, accompanied by the words "urgent", the embassy in Islamabad on Thursday recommended its nationals and French companies temporarily leave Pakistan, because of "serious threats".

The email, which did not specify the nature of the risks, caused shock and consternation among the few hundred-strong French communities.

Jean-Michel Quarantotti, who has taught French at the American school in Islamabad for three years, was first alerted to the embassy advisory by a student.

"I won't hide from you that at first, I felt a little bit of fear, panic," he told AFP.

"It's not my first foreign country -- I did a lot before arriving in Pakistan -- but I was really shocked. I didn't expect to go through this."

His first thought was to pack up and leave, but after discussing the situation with colleagues he said reason took over from emotion.

"The Pakistanis around me advised me to stay," he said. "They told me that they would protect me.

"It was very touching to see the solidarity around me, from people who told me: 'We are here for you, do not worry, we will defend you'."

The embassy announcement came after days of violent protests orchestrated by the radical Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) after the arrest in Lahore Monday of leader Saad Rizvi, who had called for a march on the capital to demand the expulsion of the French ambassador.

Four policemen were killed in the rioting.

The TLP has been behind several anti-France rallies since President Emmanuel Macron defended the right of Charlie Hebdo magazine to republish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad -- an act deemed blasphemous by many Muslims.

'Highs and lows'

Many of the French people contacted by AFP questioned the timing of the embassy's message as the Pakistani government had just announced the ban on the TLP and seemed to have the situation under control.

"Yes, there are a lot of risks to live here," said Quarantotti, "but we don't need to panic the French community with words that are badly chosen.

"We wonder a little why France needed to publicise this message at the international level, when it could have given a much more discreet message to the (French) community".

Fellow national Julien -- an assumed name because he does not wish to divulge his identity -- has also chosen to stay put.

"It's a recommendation, so I won't leave," he told AFP.

He also refused his employer's offer to repatriate him to Europe or put armed guards outside his home.

"Anyway, since October, November, it's been all ups and downs. So we'll wait for it to calm down," the Islamabad resident said.

"The watchword is vigilance," added Laurent Cinot, a consultant for the World Bank who arrived in the capital less than two months ago.

He said any threat was not from ordinary Pakistanis, but only the TLP.

Another Frenchman living in Lahore -- who is not allowed to give his name or that of his French company for security reasons -- has spent nearly ten years in Pakistan in two stints.

"Since I've been here a long time, I didn't really panic," he said.

Still, he is the only French national contacted by AFP who will leave -- on the orders of his employers.

For Cinot, the embassy message will have the unfortunate effect of sending back another very negative picture of Pakistan to France.

"It does not deserve it because, honestly, it is a magnificent country with people who are quite fascinating and kind... extremely kind," he said.

Share this story