Pakistani troops are trying to clear sit-ins by protesting against Islamists

LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) – Pakistani security forces wielding batons and fired tear gas Wednesday before dawn to clear sit-ins by protesting Islamists in the garrison town of Rawalpindi and elsewhere after five people were killed in previous clashes, officials said.

The government’s move comes two days after the arrest of Saad Rizvi, head of Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Labiak party, sparked protests from his supporters.

Police cleared a key road blocked by protesters on the outskirts of Islamabad. But they were still trying to get the situation under control in Rawalpindi, Lahore and elsewhere, officials said.

Two police officers and three other people have been killed in the violence that started Monday after police arrested Rizvi for threatening protests if the government did not expel the French ambassador over depictions of the prophet Mohammed of Islam.

According to the police, Rizvi’s arrest was aimed at maintaining law and order. But Rizvi’s detention soon sparked violent protests from Islamists. The protesters blocked highways and roads in several cities.

The deadly clashes come three days after Rizvi issued a statement asking Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government to honor a pledge it had made in February. He said Khan had promised his party to expel the French envoy by April 20 due to the publication in France of images of the prophet of Islam. However, the government has said it has only committed itself to discussing the matter in parliament.

The response of Rizvi’s supporters to his arrest was so rapid that the police were unable to clear the main roads and roads. Thousands of people were stranded in their vehicles. Monday’s clashes initially erupted in Lahore and later spread to other cities, including the southern port city of Karachi.

Rizvi emerged as leader of Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Labiak party in November after the sudden death of his father, Khadim Hussein Rizvi. His party wants the government to boycott French products and expel the French ambassador under an agreement the government signed with Rizvi’s party in February.

Tehreek-e-Labiak and other Muslim parties have denounced French President Emmanuel Macron since October last year, saying he was trying to defend caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed as freedom of speech. Macron’s comments came after a young Muslim beheaded a French teacher at school who had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in class.

The images were republished by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo to mark the opening of the 2015 deadly attack trial against the publication for the original caricatures. That enraged many Muslims in Pakistan and elsewhere who thought these images were blasphemous.

Ahmed reported from Islamabad.