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Pakistan releases hundreds of TLP activists as protest continues

Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan, a radical Islamist party, chant religious slogans during a protest march toward Islamabad, in Mureedke, Pakistan, Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021. The radical Islamist party agreed on Sunday to suspend for three days its march of thousands toward the capital Islamabad after Pakistan agreed to drop pending charges against the party's leader. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

Pakistan’s government has released 350 activists of the far-right Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) religious group, the country’s interior minister says, as protests demanding the release of the group’s chief enter their fourth day.

Hundreds of TLP protesters remain encamped on the main highway on Monday near the town of Muridke, about 20km (12 miles) north of Pakistan’s second-biggest city, Lahore, as negotiations between the party’s leadership and a government committee continue.

“We have released 350 TLP workers up to now and we are still waiting to open both sides road of Muridke as per the decision with TLP,” Pakistani Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed, who is heading the government’s negotiating team, said on Sunday.

A “final round” of negotiations will take place in the capital Islamabad on Monday, TLP Central Information Secretary Pir Ejaz Ashrafi told Al Jazeera.

The far-right group, which campaigns on the issue of blasphemy and has held several countrywide demonstrations that have paralysed Pakistan in recent years, began a protest demanding the release of its chief, Saad Rizvi, in Lahore on Friday.

At least two policemen were killed during clashes between protesters and riot police in Lahore, authorities said, with unconfirmed reports of several protesters also being killed.

TLP official Ashrafi said at least seven protesters had been killed in the clashes, which saw police firing tear gas shells at protesters and authorities putting up roadblocks and digging trenches to attempt to control the demonstrators’ movements.

Al Jazeera has been unable to independently verify the death toll.

TLP chief Rizvi has been held in custody since April when he led protests calling for the expulsion of the French ambassador to Pakistan over comments by French President Emmanuel Macron last October that were interpreted by many as Islamophobic.

Earlier this month, the Lahore High Court ordered that Rizvi be released as there was not enough evidence to hold him under the administrative and anti-terrorism detention orders that had been used to arrest him.

The TLP chief however remains in government custody.

The far-right TLP was declared a “proscribed organisation” under anti-terrorism legislation by the Pakistani government in April, days after police first arrested Rizvi.

On Sunday, Interior Minister Ahmed said the government was willing to drop charges against TLP activists and leaders and to re-examine the cases of dozens of TLP activists whose names have been placed on a list of citizens who are monitored under anti-terrorism laws.

Ahmed said the issue of whether to expel the French ambassador “would be taken to the [parliament] and we will ask for the formation of a committee by the speaker so that work can be started as quickly as possible on this”.

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