ISLAMABAD – Security forces in Pakistan sealed off a main highway into the capital, Islamabad, for a second day Monday to contain thousands of Islamists gathered outside the city to protest the reprinting of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in France.
Witnesses and organizers said around 5,000 followers of the far-right Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, or TLP, began rallying on Sunday in neighboring Rawalpindi city and vowed to march toward the French Embassy in Islamabad.
Rally participants were chanting anti-France slogans and demanding the expulsion of the French ambassador.
Pakistani authorities, however, deployed thousands of riot police and paramilitary forces, and placed shipping containers at key entry points to block participants from entering the capital. Cell phone service in and around Islamabad was also switched off to prevent rally organizers from coordinating with each other.
Protesters attempted to remove roadblocks Sunday night in their bid to enter the city, prompting police to respond with tear gas. The ensuing clashes spilled into Monday morning, injuring more than a dozen police officers.
An officer told VOA one of their personnel suffered “critical” injures, saying some of the demonstrators were “armed with long sticks that had daggers tied to them.” The clashes also left several protesters injured, according to hospital sources in Rawalpindi.
The Pakistani capital remained under virtual lockdown even on Monday evening, with telecommunication services suspended for a second day in a row and security forces struggling to disperse the rally.
Commuters between Islamabad and Rawalpindi and those traveling to the capital from other parts of Pakistan faced lengthy delays on alternate routes into the capital.
Islamic parties in Pakistan have routinely organized scattered protests since early September against French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo for republishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that Muslims deem as blasphemous.
Last month, a history teacher was decapitated outside a school near Paris after he had shown his students caricatures of the Prophet when the class discussed free speech.
While French authorities were investigating the slaying of Samuel Paty and cracking down on suspected Islamist militants, a Tunisian man fatally stabbed three people in a cathedral in Nice.
French President Emmanuel Macron has defended the right of publishers in his country to depict cartoons of the Prophet, drawing strong condemnation and triggering anti-France protests in Muslim countries.
Islamabad has formally lodged a complaint with France over what it called a “systematic Islamophobic campaign” in the European nation.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has accused Macron of attacking the Muslim faith and urged Islamic countries to work together to counter what he called growing repression in Europe.
“European powers, Western countries must understand that you cannot use freedom of speech as a weapon to cause Muslims pain by insulting our Prophet. Unless this is understood, the cycle of violence will keep happening,” Khan cautioned in a statement earlier this month.
The ongoing violent protest outside Islamabad is not the first time the hardline cleric and TLP chief, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, has organized demonstrations over blasphemy-related issues in Pakistan.
Rizvi’s followers, at his call, almost paralyzed parts of Pakistan in 2018 following the acquittal by the Supreme Court of a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who had been wrongly accused of disrespecting the Prophet Muhammad.