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France recalls 15 diplomats from Pakistan in wake of violent protests

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France has recalled 15 diplomats from Pakistan in the wake of violent protests and clashes involving a banned group that is demanding the expulsion of the French envoy over the publication of blasphemous caricatures of Prophet Mohammed.

The Pakistan government banned the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) under the Anti-Terrorism Act on Thursday after the group organised violent protests across the country for three days and challenged the authorities. At least two policemen were killed in clashes with TLP supporters.

A total of 15 French diplomats, mostly secretaries and aides to department heads, have already left Pakistan or are set to return to Paris over the next few days, Le Figaro newspaper reported on Monday.

On Thursday, France advised its nationals and companies in Pakistan to temporarily leave the country because of the violent anti-France protests by TLP in many cities.

Also Read | Rangers, cops held hostage by anti-France protesters in Pakistan

“Due to the serious threats to French interests in Pakistan, French nationals and French companies are advised to temporarily leave the country,” the French embassy said in an email sent to French citizens.

“The departures will be carried out by existing commercial airlines,” it said.

The recall of the French diplomats reflects the rapid deterioration of diplomatic ties between Paris and Islamabad. Bilateral ties took a hit after the government of President Emmanuel Macron backed the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s right to republish blasphemous cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammed last year.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has shown no signs of taking on hardline religious or extremist groups, had also criticised Charlie Hebdo for republishing the caricatures and said “wilful provocations” on religious grounds should be “universally outlawed”. Khan was also critical of Macron’s role in the affair.

The “extremely rare” decision to recall the French diplomats “illustrates Paris’ impatience in the face of a crisis that has lasted for more than five months”, Le Figaro reported. France hadn’t resorted to such a step even when Pakistan witnessed frequent terror attacks in 2008 and the French foreign ministry’s decision “denotes a change in its diplomacy in South Asia which is increasingly aligned with that of India”, the report added.

On Sunday, police in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore launched an operation against TLP after the group took more than a dozen policemen, including a senior officer, hostage. Several people were killed and many more were injured during the operation, according to Pakistani media reports.

Despite the ban on the group, government representatives met TLP leaders for talks on Sunday and secured the release of 11 policemen who had been held hostage.

The TLP leaders made four demands during the talks – the expulsion of the French ambassador, removal of the ban on the group, release of TLP chief Saad Hussain Rizvi who was arrested on April 12, and release of other arrested workers and revoking of FIRs registered against them. The government representatives said the first demand would have to be decided by Parliament and sought time to act on the other demands.

Last November, the Pakistan government had signed an agreement with TLP whereby it agreed to implement all of the group’s demands within three months. Before TLP was banned last week, the group had set April 20 as the deadline for expelling the French ambassador.

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