A Pakistani Christian woman who spent eight years on death row for blasphemy has been freed from jail after an acquittal that triggered Islamist protests, but is still in Pakistan, officials said Thursday amid appeals for her to be offered asylum.
Asia Bibi's conviction was overturned by the country's highest court last Wednesday, but she remained in prison as the government negotiated with hardliners who blockaded major cities and demanded her immediate execution.
Islamist parties had already vowed to take to the streets of Karachi later Thursday to protest at her acquittal and numbers were now expected to swell sharply following news of her release.
"She has been freed," lawyer Saif-ul-Mulook said in a text message to AFP. "I have been told that she is on a plane but nobody knows where she will land."
Following protests at last week's ruling, the government agreed in a deal with Islamists to impose a travel ban on Bibi, and not to challenge a review of the Supreme Court's ruling.
One of the most vocal groups in the protests - the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) - called for "mutiny" against the army's top brass and the assassination of the top court's justices.
Following Bibi's release, the TLP vowed to return to the streets if she was allowed to leave the country.
"If the promise is broken and she is sent abroad, then Allah willing, a movement will start and it will be decisive," said TLP leader Afzal Qadri, after an earlier message from the group accused the government of reneging on the agreement.
Foreign ministry spokesman Muhammad Faisal on Thursday denied media reports that Bibi had left the country, telling AFP: "She is in Pakistan".
Intelligence sources also told AFP that she had not left the country.
An order for her release arrived Wednesday at the jail in the central city of Multan where she was held, a prison official told AFP.
"Asia Bibi has left the prison and has been transferred to a safe place!" tweeted Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament.
Another civil aviation official, in Multan, said a small plane arrived in the city with "a few foreigners and some Pakistanis" on board to fetch Bibi.
Her case has underscored deep divisions between traditionalists and modernisers in the devoutly Muslim country.
The conviction stemmed from a 2009 incident when Bibi was asked to fetch water while out working in the fields.