Pressured by Islamists, Pakistan parliament to vote on whether to expel French envoy

FILE PHOTO: Supporters of Pakistan's religious and political party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) hold signs and chant slogans during a protest against the cartoon publications of Prophet Mohammad in France and French President Emmanuel Macron's comments, in Karachi, Pakistan October 28, 2020. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -Pakistan's government will seek a vote in parliament on Tuesday on whether to expel the French ambassador after violent anti-France protests by Islamists demanding action over cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammad, the interior minister said.

Prime Minister Imran Khan warned his nation in a televised address late on Monday that Pakistan risked paying a price if it expelled the French envoy, as half the country's exports are sold to the European Union.

Relations between Paris and Islamabad became more strained after President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute late last year to a French teacher who was beheaded by a man of Chechen origin for showing cartoons depicting the Prophet in a class on freedom of speech.

Muslims consider such drawings of their Prophet to be blasphemous.

The expulsion of the ambassador is one of the main four demands of a radical Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) group, which the government banned last week after its members blocked main highways, railways and access routes to major cities, assaulting police and burning public property.

Four police officers were killed, almost a dozen were taken hostage and more than 800 wounded, many of them seriously, during clashes with the Islamists.

The Islamists say that three TLP members were also killed.

The violence erupted after the government detained TLP leader Saad Hussain Rizvi ahead of a planned countrywide anti-France campaign aimed at pressuring Prime Minister Khan to take action.

On Monday, the government said it had entered negotiations with the TLP, and that the Islamist group had freed 11 police that had been snatched during a clash outside the TLP's headquarters in the eastern city of Lahore.

"After long negotiations between government of Pakistan and the TLP, this has been agreed that we will table a resolution in parliament today to expel French ambassador," Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad said in a video recorded statement.

Aside from wanting the ambassador expelled, the TLP is demanding the release of their leader and hundreds of arrested workers, the removal of ban on the group and the dismissal of the interior minister.

All cases registered against the TLP and its workers will be withdrawn, the interior minister said, adding that the group will end all the sit-in protests from across the country.

(Reporting by Asif Shahzad; Editing by Kim Coghill & Simon Cameron-Moore)

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