Violent clashes erupted between Pakistan’s security forces and a far-right group in the eastern city of Lahore, killing at least two policemen and injuring several demonstrators, a police spokesman and witnesses said.
The violence happened on Friday after thousands of members of the far-right Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan (TLP) party launched their “long march” from the city towards the capital, Islamabad, demanding that the government release the leader of their outlawed party.
The rally goers want to go to Islamabad to pressure the government to release Saad Rizvi, the head of the TLP. Rizvi was arrested last year amid demonstrations against France for publishing caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
Pakistan has deployed police and paramilitary personnel to prevent the demonstrators from leaving Lahore. Authorities also suspended mobile phone service in parts of Lahore and blocked roads.
The situation worsened when police tried to stop the rally goers, witnesses said.
The violence disrupted normal life in parts of Lahore, where residents were facing problems in reaching home because of the closure of some roads and continued clashes between police and TLP supporters.
Sajid Saifi, a spokesman for Rizvi’s party, blamed police and paramilitary forces for initiating violence. He said the use of force by authorities injured hundreds of people. Some were having a breathing problem because of the use of tear gas, he added.
Saifi alleged that police were not allowing them to transport their injured supporters to hospital.
According to witnesses, rally goers were walking towards a highway leading to Islamabad.
Supporters of Rizvi’s party shared videos showing police firing tear gas shells as some of the injured protesters waited for medical aid.
Police spokesman Rana Arif said two of the police officers were killed and another was injured when protesters threw stones. Rizvi’s supporters said several protesters were wounded when police swung batons and fired tear gas.
Shipping containers were also being brought in to block the main Islamabad highway and surrounding roads to keep protesters from entering the capital from other nearby cities, towns and villages.
Lahore is located about 350km (210 miles) from Islamabad, and most of the rally-goers are walking, although they had arranged buses and cars to reach the capital in a convoy.
The TLP has a history of staging protests and sit-ins to press their demands.
On Friday, Rizvi’s party leader Ajmal Qadri said his supporters launched the “long march” after talks with the government failed to secure Rizvi’s release.
Rizvi’s party gained prominence in Pakistan’s 2018 elections, campaigning on a single issue: defending the country’s blasphemy law, which calls for the death penalty for anyone who insults Islam. It also has a history of staging violent protests to pressure the government to accept its demands.
The latest development came at a time when Prime Minister Imran Khan was visiting Lahore.
Khan is expected to leave for Saudi Arabia on an official visit on Saturday.
Friday’s rally against Khan’s government also came amid increasing price rises in the country.
Surging prices of food, gas, electricity and other items have made him unpopular, although he still holds the majority in the parliament.