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Pakistan opens talks with outlawed Islamists behind violent anti-France protests

A hawker on bicycle rides past a closed wholesale cloth market during a countrywide strike in Karachi,

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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan on Monday opened negotiations with radical Islamist after they freed 11 police abducted during week-long anti-blasphemy protests against France in which four officers were killed, the interior minister said.

Most main businesses, markets, shopping malls and public transport services were closed in major cities in response to a strike call by the Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) and its affiliated groups.

Pakistan’s PSX 100 stock exchange opened 500 points down in the morning though recovered later in the day.

The police officers were abducted during clashes outside TLP headquarters in the eastern city of Lahore, which according to the group also killed its three members.

Photographs of the police officers, with their heads, legs and arms heavily bandaged, were posted on social media by their captors.

“They’ve released the 11 policemen they had held hostage,” Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad said in a video statement.

He said negotiations with the TLP were under way.

“There have been two rounds of the talks and there will be another later in the evening,” Religious Affairs Minister Noor-ul-Haq Qadri told parliament. “We believe in negotiations and reconciliation to sort out issues.”

The government outlawed the TLP last week after it blocked main highways, railways and access routes to major cities, assaulting police and burning public property. Four police officers were killed and more than 500 wounded.

The violence erupted after the government detained TLP leader Saad Hussain Rizvi ahead of a planned countrywide anti-France campaign to pressure the Islamabad government to expel the French ambassador in response to the publication of cartoons in France last year depicting the Prophet Mohammad.

The TLP has presented four main demands in the talks with the government, officials from both sides said.

They included expulsion of the French ambassador, release of the TLP leader and around 1,400 arrested workers, lifting the ban on the group and the dismissal of the interior minister.

Prime Minister Imran Khan said expelling the French ambassador would only cause damage to Pakistan, and diplomatic engagement between the Muslim world and the West was the only way to resolve disputes.

“When we send the French ambassador back and break relations with them it means we break relations with the European Union,” he said in a televised address. “Half our textile exports go to the EU, so half our textile exports would be gone.”

Relations between Paris and Islamabad have worsened since the end of last year after President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to a French history teacher who was beheaded by an 18-year-old man of Chechen origin for showing cartoons of the Prophet in a class on freedom of speech.

Protests erupted in several Muslim countries over France’s response to the killing of the teacher. The Prophet cartoons were re-printed elsewhere as well.

At the time, Khan’s government signed a deal promising to present a resolution in parliament by April 20 to seek approval for the expulsion of the French envoy and to endorse a boycott of French products.

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(Reporting by Asif Shahzad; Additional Reporting by Umar Farooq in Islamabad, Mubasher Bukhari in Lahore and Syed Raza Hassan in Karachi; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Nick Macfie)

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