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Pakistan to outlaw violent Islamist group that rails on blasphemy

FILE PHOTO: A supporter of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) Islamist political party hurls stones towards police (not in picture) during a protest against the arrest of their leader

By Asif Shahzad and Umar Farooq

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -Pakistan is to outlaw a hardline Islamist group that railed agaisnt blasphemy to rise to prominence, the interior minister said on Wednesday, the third day of violent protests that killed two police officers and wounded 340.

The government said it has also arrested 1,400 workers of the group, that is agitating against the arrest of its chief ahead of countrywide rallies to denounce publication of cartoons in France depicting the Prophet Mohammad.

Paramilitary troops were deployed overnight to clear the protests by the Tehrik-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), which has blocked rail tracks, highways and entry and exit routes to all major cities.

An Islamist was also killed in the protests, triggered by the arrest of their leader, Saad Hussain Rizvi, 26.

Videos shared on social media which Reuters couldn’t verify showed bloodied police officers being frog-marched in their torn uniforms.

The government said at least 340 police were wounded.

The two officers were beaten to death in eastern Lahore, said the city police chief, Ghulam Mahmood Dogar. Another police officer, Sajid Kiyani, said the Islamists also used firearms at some places where they also assaulted and abducted police.

Rizvi has been charged with instigating murder.

The TLP is demaning that the government expel the French ambassador and endorse a boycott of French products.

“We have decided to ban the TLP,” Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid told reporters in Islamabad. “We don’t want to be known as an extremist nation at international level,” he said, adding that the group would be banned under country’s anti-terrorism laws.

But the TLP is backed by a majority Sunni sect of Islam with a following of tens of thousands that will make it difficult to enforce any ban.

Pakistani extremists groups have a history of popping up with different names after being outlawed.

Last year, the TLP group ended a similar protest only after the government signed a deal agreeing to endorse a boycott of French products and making a move in parliament to expel French ambassador.

A deadline to make the parliamentary move expires on April 20.

The interior minister said such a move would not happen now.

“You can’t force the state to do your bidding,” he said.

Protests broke out last year in several Muslim countries over the response in France to the killing of a teacher who showed cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammad in a civics class. The cartoons were re-printed elsewhere.

For Muslims, depictions of the Prophet are blasphemous.

(Reporting by Asif Shahzad and Umar Farooq in Islamabad and Mubasher Bukhari in Lahore; Editing by William Maclean and Nick Macfie)

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