By Mubasher Bukhari
LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - An Islamist party in Pakistan called for the expulsion of the Dutch ambassador on Wednesday as it launched a protest against a far-right Dutch politician's plan for a cartoon competition featuring caricatures of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed.
Several thousand activists gathered in the eastern city of Lahore for the demonstration organised by Tehreek-e-Labbaik, a party that amassed the fifth largest number of votes in a general election last month having campaigned as a defender of the laws and punishments for crimes of blasphemy.
Party leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi set out from Lahore's historic centre at the head of a protest he aims to take through the towns of Punjab province to the capital Islamabad, where protesters will stage a sit-in to pressure Pakistan's new Prime Minister Imran Khan to cut diplomatic ties with the Netherlands.
"The Dutch ambassador should be immediately deported," Labbaik spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi told Reuters. "We will only stop when the government meets this demand."
Pakistan has already complained to the Dutch government about far-right parliamentarian Geert Wilders' plans for a cartoon contest that will upset and provoke Muslims.
Wilders intends to display the cartoons on the walls of his political party's room in parliament. He says he’s had "hundreds" of entries.
"The Foreign Office called the charge d'affaires of the Netherlands and issued him a Demarche' to record a protest," the Pakistani prime minister's office said in a statement on Wednesday.
The Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte said last week that the cartoon competition "was not something I would do" and his government was not associated with it.
Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said he planned to take up the issue with the United Nations and several world leaders.
"They don't understand how much they hurt us when they do such acts," Khan, a cricketer-turned-politician, said on Tuesday, a day after the upper house of parliament condemned the proposed cartoon competition.
Officials from the Punjab provincial government met with Labbaik leaders in Lahore in a vain attempt to persuade them to call off their protest.
"We told them to stop the protests because the Pakistan government is taking up the issue effectively," an official involved on the talks told Reuters, adding that Labbaik representatives insisted the protest would only end once the Dutch envoy was expelled.
Last year, in a stand-off with the previous government, Labbaik shut down a main highway leading into Islamabad for nearly three weeks over a small change in wording to an electoral law changing a religious oath to a simple declaration. Labbaik said the change amounted to blasphemy.
The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz was forced to accept the resignation of law minister Zahid Hamid, who Labbaik held responsible for the change, after seven people were killed and nearly 200 wounded in a failed attempt by police to disperse protesters.
(Writing by Saad Sayeed; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)