By Mubasher Bukhari and Asif Shahzad
LAHORE, Pakistan -A banned Islamist group prepared to march on Pakistan’s capital Islamabad despite last minute negotiations with the government that the country’s interior minister said on Thursday evening were deadlocked.
Thousands of members of the banned Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) group had been gathered since last Friday on a highway, just outside the eastern city of Lahore, with a series of demands including the release of their imprisoned leader.
On Thursday they began marching north towards Pakistan’s capital after a series of deadly clashes with police the previous evening.
“We have started marching towards Islamabad, police have barricaded the road, but we will remove them,” a TLP spokesman told Reuters.
Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed said on Thursday evening that the government was in talks with TLP and he had spoken to the group’s imprisoned leader Saad Rizvi by phone but so far no deal had been reached.
“What we have agreed with the TLP, we stand by with it, but they are still not listening to us and are not stepping down,” he said in an interview with local broadcaster Geo.
The government has said that it would agree to most of the group’s demands, including freeing Rizvi, but would not agree to formally expelling the French ambassador.
“If they dont go back, there will be consequences,” Rasheed said, adding he was prepared to continue talks in the coming days.
Clashes on Wednesday evening killed around four police officers and several TLP members, and wounded dozens. The country’s information minister had said they would be treated with full force as a militant group and not allowed to enter the capital, where shipping containers had been set up to block roads.
Besides demanding the release of their leader and their removal from a list of banned organisations, the TLP activists have been calling for the expulsion of France’s ambassador over the publication of a series of caricatures depicting the Prophet Mohammad by a French satirical magazine.
It is the group’s third countrywide protest campaign since 2017 over caricatures that are considered deeply insulting by Muslims.
(Reporting by Mubasher Bukhari in Lahore, Asif Shahzad in Islambad; writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Alistair Bell)