Police say they launched a security operation after a right-wing group took six security personnel hostage in Lahore.
Islamabad, Pakistan – Protesters belonging to Pakistan’s far-right Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) group have released 11 police officers abducted during violent clashes in the eastern city of Lahore, the country’s interior minister says, as negotiations remain ongoing.
Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed, speaking in a video message issued early on Monday, said “a lot of progress” had been made in the first round of negotiations.
“They have released the 11 policemen they had abducted and the people of the TLP have gone into the Rehmat ul Alimeen mosque and police have also moved back,” Rasheed said.
Several policemen and protesters were wounded in clashes on Sunday, which began after TLP activists attacked a police station in the Sodhiwal area of Pakistan’s second city Lahore, police spokesperson Nayab Haider told Al Jazeera.
Protesters retreated on Monday to a nearby TLP mosque, around 2 km (1.2 miles) from the site of Sunday’s clashes, Haider said. Police had also moved back and reduced the number of officers deployed as negotiations took place, he added.
Haider said no policemen had been killed in Sunday’s violence, and that authorities were not aware of any casualties on the TLP’s side.
TLP representatives did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on Monday.
Meanwhile, several religious parties called a strike on Monday in solidarity with the TLP, with authorities raising security levels in the capital Islamabad and elsewhere.
Last week, the Pakistani government designated the TLP a “terrorist” organisation under anti-terrorism legislation, with authorities saying they would move to have the Election Commission delist the group as a political party.
That move came after days of violent TLP protests in Lahore, the country’s largest city of Karachi, Rawalpindi and elsewhere, as the group demanded the release of its chief Saad Rizvi from police custody.
Founded in 2017, the TLP is a hardline religious group that has held several major countrywide demonstrations on the issue of perceived “blasphemy” against Islam.
Its latest protest movement was launched in November against the French government, after French President Emmanuel Macron made comments that were interpreted by some, including Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, as “encouraging Islamophobia”.
Macron had defended a publication’s right to republish caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, an act considered “blasphemous” by some Muslims.
Blasphemy is a sensitive subject in Pakistan, where certain forms of the crime carry a mandatory death penalty.
There has also been a rise in violence related to such accusations, with at least 78 people killed in mob and targeted attacks in relation to blasphemy allegations since 1990, according to an Al Jazeera tally.
The TLP, whose previous anti-government protests have been supported by PM Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party when it was in the opposition, won more than two million votes in the country’s 2018 general election, although they translated to just three provincial assembly seats in the southern region of Sindh.
In response to Macron’s comments, the TLP has demanded Pakistan expel the French ambassador, boycott French goods and take other measures. While the government initially agreed to place those demands before parliament, Interior Minister Rasheed said last week that the TLP refused to agree upon the wording of a parliamentary resolution on the issue, stalling progress.
On Monday, Pakistani PM Imran Khan appeared to address the issue during an event in the capital Islamabad, saying “some religious parties […] use Islam wrongly.”
“Doing these protests and violence in our country, it won’t make a difference to the West, where this insulting [of the Prophet Muhammad] happens,” Khan said. “It doesn’t hurt them at all. We are doing it to ourselves.”
Khan called on Muslim-majority countries to band together to lobby European and other countries on the issue of perceived blasphemy related to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.