France advised its citizens and companies Thursday to temporarily leave Pakistan, citing “serious threats to French interests” in the South Asian nation.
The move follows violent protests this week across large parts of Pakistan by activists of the radical Islamist party Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), which has been demanding that Islamabad expel the French ambassador over the publishing of anti-Islam cartoons in France.
“Due to the serious threats to French interests in Pakistan, French nationals and French companies are advised to temporarily leave the country," France’s embassy said in an email to its estimated 500 citizens in living in Pakistan.
“The departures will be carried out by existing commercial airlines,” it said.
Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri said in response to the French advisory that the government was taking steps to improve the situation.
“We are aware of the advice, which appears to be based on their own assessment of the situation. For its part, the government is taking enhanced measures for the maintenance of law and order and preventing any damage to life and property,” said Chaudhri.
Pakistani officials said Wednesday that three days of clashes between TLP supporters and police killed two law enforcement personnel and wounded nearly 600 others, including dozens of protesters.
The unprecedented attacks against police prompted the Pakistani government to declare the TLP a banned organization under the country’s anti-terrorism laws.
TLP members took to the streets in major cities Monday, shortly after authorities in the eastern city of Lahore detained their leader, Saad Rizvi. They blocked highways across major cities, paralyzing business and daily life.
Pakistani Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed on Thursday said police and paramilitary forces had dispersed the protesters in most, but not all, places.
Ahmed defended Rizvi’s arrest, saying Rizvi was planning to lead a march on Islamabad to besiege the capital in connection with the TLP’s demand for the expulsion of the French ambassador. The interior minister dismissed the demand as illegitimate, saying entities like the TLP cannot be allowed to dictate terms to the Pakistani state.
The TLP has risen to prominence in Pakistan in recent years. Along with demonstrations against France, the party has pressured the Pakistani government into not repealing or reforming the country’s harsh blasphemy laws, which critics say often are used to intimidate religious minorities and settle personal disputes.