Pakistan anti-France protests disrupt COVID-19 oxygen: Officials

Lahore: Thousands of supporters of a Pakistan Islamist party who blocked major roads to protest the arrest of their leader also disrupted critical oxygen supplies for COVID-19 patients, health officials said Tuesday.

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Major intersections remained closed in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-biggest city, after the arrest on Monday of Saad Rizvi, the leader of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP).

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The party has led calls for the expulsion of the French ambassador, after the government of President Emmanuel Macron expressed support for a magazine’s right to republish cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) – an act deemed blasphemous by Muslims.

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Yasmin Rashid, a leading health official in Punjab, said the disruption of oxygen supplies during protests Monday night had been a “crisis”.

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“Please do not block roads for ambulances and for visitors to the hospitals. Some ambulances are carrying oxygen cylinders, which are extremely essential for COVID-19 patients,” Rashid said.

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Punjab pandemic pointman Asad Aslam said several hospitals had faced oxygen shortages Monday night, but the situation had stabilised after roads were cleared by authorities.

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Pakistan is in the grip of a deadly third wave of the coronavirus with a shortage of vaccines.

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The TLP are notorious for days-long road protests that have brought large swathes of Pakistan to a standstill over the years.

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A party official told AFP that two of their supporters were killed during clashes with security forces on Monday night when police used tear gas and water cannon to break up crowds.

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Officials have yet to comment on the reported deaths.

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TLP leader Rizvi was taken into custody hours after calling for an April 20 march on the capital to demand the expulsion of the French ambassador, an ouster the group says the government had already agreed to last year.

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The government has never acknowledged any such agreement.

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Rizvi is the son of a firebrand cleric and previous head of the TLP, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who died in November after leading massive anti-France protests across Pakistan.

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During those protests, TLP supporters brought the capital to a standstill for three days that saw heavy street fighting and pushed authorities to cut mobile phone coverage in Islamabad and surrounding areas.

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