KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) – Pro-government and opposition groups blamed each other Sunday for the worst political violence to grip Pakistan in years, as fresh riots broke out and the toll from bloody street battles in Karachi rose to 37 dead and over 150 wounded.
An effigy of Pakistani President Gen.
Pervez Musharraf burns on the
streets of Karachi during Saturday’s
Unrest broke out Sunday in several ethnic Pashtun-dominated neighborhoods of the city, and “unknown people” fatally shot a man identified as Saifur Rehman, police officer Shad Masih said. He said police dispersed a crowd in the area using tear gas.
Competing rallies timed for a visit to Karachi on Saturday by the country’s top judge sparked gunfights and clashes between rival political activists that left corpses in the streets and raised new fears for the nation’s stability.
A crisis has been brewing since President Gen. Pervez Musharraf suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry on March 9 over allegations he abused his office.
Critics accuse Musharraf, also army chief, of trying to sideline the independent-minded judge in case of legal challenges to efforts to prolong his nearly eight-year rule.
Newspaper editorials on Sunday lamented the descent into chaos and violence. “It appeared at times as if there was no government in Karachi and it was gunmen who ruled the nation’s biggest city,” said the respected Dawn daily.
The front-page headline in The News referred to a “Karachi bloodbath.”
Order was largely restored Sunday. Security forces in armored personnel carriers and pickup trucks topped with machine guns patrolled the streets, which were mostly peaceful and deserted.
But tensions remained high, particularly Pashtuns and Urdu-speaking supporters of the pro-government Mutahida Qaumi Movement party. Opposition parties have accused the MQM of initiating much of Saturday’s violence, in which Pashtun supporters of Chaudhry were among the dead.
Youths pelted police with stones, and gunfire rang out in at least three neighborhoods as factions clashed, including the area where Rehman, a Pashtun, was killed. Police reported three other men were hospitalized with gunshot wounds.
Officials contacted at four hospitals across Karachi said the casualty toll had risen to 37 dead and about 150 wounded.
Karachi police chief Azhar Faruqi said several people have been arrested in connection with Saturday’s violence but gave no details. He declared that authorities were “now in control of the city.”
On Saturday, officials said a security force of 15,000 was deployed in the city. But there was no sign of intervention in the violence.
A spokesman for the Pakistan Peoples Party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto blamed Musharraf and the MQM for the violence.
“We condemn this mayhem and we believe that the MQM could not have done it without the active support of Gen. Pervez Musharraf,” spokesman Farhatullah Babar said.
“We therefore hold the federal government and Musharraf equally responsible for what has happened. It shows that the government wanted to create a situation of civil strife to find an excuse for imposing an emergency and postponing the elections,” he said.
But in his own mass rally in Islamabad late Saturday, Musharraf insisted he would not declare an emergency, and said a presidential vote by lawmakers and parliamentary elections would go ahead as planned by year’s end.
He urged opposition parties to stop protests in support of the judge.
“My heart was weeping when I saw that people were dying, they were being killed, they were being martyred,” he told a crowd marshaled by the ruling Pakistan Muslim League party.
On Sunday, Minister of State for Information Tariq Azeem Khan said it was too early to say who was responsible for the “carnage.” He said there was no “definite proof” of who was involved in the rioting and that the prime minister and the provincial government have ordered separate inquiries.
The exiled leader of the MQM, Altaf Hussain, blamed Chaudhry for the violence, saying he should have heeded warnings from officials to stay away from Karachi. He said it was the MQM that was attacked.
The MQM is a coalition partner in both the government of Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital, and the federal government. The Karachi-based party has a reputation for militancy. In December 1986, 90 people were killed in violence between ethnic Pashtuns and MQM supporters.
Opposition members and lawyers accused the MQM of launching the attacks with batons and guns as supporters of the judge attempted to greet Chaudhry on Saturday at the airport, ahead of a planned address to a gathering of lawyers in the city. Gunbattles broke out as MQM rivals retaliated.
A private TV network accused MQM activists of peppering its building with gunfire because of its live coverage of the violence. The channel stayed on the air as rioters torched vehicles outside.
Witnesses said that shipping containers, trucks and oil tankers, many with deflated tires, had been parked on key roads in Karachi overnight, including those leading to the airport — apparently to obstruct Chaudhry’s supporters.
The violence trapped Chaudhry at the airport. He returned to Islamabad late Saturday without addressing the rally. An MQM rally went ahead as planned.
The push to reinstate Chaudhry as chief justice has galvanized Pakistan’s fractious opposition parties and amounts to the biggest challenge to Musharraf’s rule since his 1999 coup.
The judge was appointed in 2005 and has a reputation for challenging the government, including over its plans to privatize state industry and unexplained detentions of terror suspects.