Three Pakistani police officers were killed and 70 others wounded by gunfire during clashes with activists of a banned Islamist party, the interior minister said.
"They opened fire on police with Kalashnikovs...three policemen were martyred," Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed told a news conference on October 27, adding eight of those wounded were in critical condition.
The renewed violence erupted as thousands of supporters of the Tehrik-e Labaik Pakistan (TLP) party tried to continue a protest march on the capital, Islamabad. The group said several of their activists had also been killed or wounded in the violence near the town of Sadhoke.
The TLP has been demanding Pakistani authorities release its leader Saad Rizvi, who was arrested in April amid violent demonstrations against France linked to the publication of political cartoons depicting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
A day earlier, the interior minister said the government had reached an agreement with the TLP on all of its demands, except for the radical group’s call for the expulsion of the French ambassador.
But the TLP, which had suspended it march for three days, then accused the government of “lying” about the agreement and said protesters would continue their march until the French ambassador was expelled for committing blasphemy.
“The government is not sincere in negotiations but if more blood is shed now, revenge will be taken," TLP said in a statement, adding that 40 of its members have been killed since the march began last week.
Prime Minister Imran Khan issued an order for security forces to stop protesters from reaching the capital as police blocked roads and sealed off areas with shipping containers.
"The government and the state are on one page regarding the protests," Khan said during a security meeting, Geo News reported, citing sources. Khan reportedly said the protesters will be "dealt with severely if they try to enter Islamabad."
Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said the government would use force to block the Islamists from entering the capital.
"It can't be tolerated anymore," Chaudhry told a news conference in Islamabad. "We have shown restraint so far but the challenge to the state's authority can't be tolerated anymore."
TLP supporters clashed with police in the eastern city of Lahore on October 22 when they started their protest march to Islamabad and its twin city Rawalpindi, some 300 kilometers to the north.
Police say the violence led to the deaths of at least two police and injured about a dozen others. Hundreds of protesters were arrested and later released.
Rizvi’s party has a history of staging violent protests to pressure the government to accept its demands.
The TLP gained prominence in 2017 when it held a monthlong protest sit-in outside Islamabad to force the government to amend the wording of oaths for ministers. The protest ended following the resignation of the then law minister who was accused of changing the oath.
In Pakistan’s 2018 elections, the party campaigned on the single issue of defending the country’s blasphemy law. Those laws call for death penalty sentences against anyone who insults Islam.