Sunday, May 13, 2007

Pakistan on brink of disaster as Karachi burns

Chaos gripped the streets of Karachi yesterday as gun battles left at least 31 people dead and hundreds more injured, threatening a complete breakdown of law and order in Pakistan's largest and most volatile city.

With plumes of black smoke billowing over the city of 12 million people, there were extraordinary scenes as gunmen on motorbikes pumped bullets into crowds demonstrating against Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, while police stood by and watched.

Gun battles left at least 31 people dead and hundreds more injured.

In images more reminiscent of Baghdad, bloodstained corpses lay where they had fallen in the streets and bodies piled up in hospital morgues. As the sense of crisis deepened, a crisis meeting between Gen Musharraf and the prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, resolved to send in paramilitary troops to restore order, and to place the army on standby. The men agreed that a state of emergency would be imposed if the first two options failed.

It was the bloodiest escalation of the two-month long saga which began when the president attempted to sack the country's chief justice in March. The ensuing challenge by lawyers and opposition parties to Gen Musharraf's eight-year rule has left the president - a key Western ally in the "war on terror" - desperately clinging to power.

Opponents believe he had hoped to create a compliant judiciary ahead of elections which he has promised to hold later this year. But what started as a political confrontation has now lit Karachi's tinderbox of ethnic rivalry.

Yesterday's violence erupted as Iftikhar Chaudhry, the suspended chief justice, flew in to Karachi Jinah International Airport to address a rally.

Many of the 15,000 police and security forces deployed in the city stood idly by as armed activists from Karachi's ruling party, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a coalition ally of Gen Musharraf, blocked Mr Chaudhry's exit from the airport and took control of the city's central district.

The movement's leader, Altaf Hussain - who lives in self-imposed exile in London - co-ordinated opposition to Mr Chaudhry's arrival and addressed crowds gathered on the streets of Karachi in a mobile phone call relayed by loudspeakers.

He called on supporters to be peaceful but to show whose city it was. Instead, violence reigned.

Gunmen tore off on motorbikes after brazenly firing AK-47 rifles at opposition supporters. One report described MQM gunmen exchanging gunfire for an hour with activists from the exiled former premier Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party.

Road blocks, including trucks with deflated tires, prevented most of Mr Chaudhry's supporters from reaching the airport to greet him. But a few dozen lawyers who reached there on foot chanted, "We are with you. Down with Musharraf." Dozens of vehicles and petrol pumps were set alight by the angry mobs.

Vehicles were set alight as clashes broke out between political activists.

Inside Mr Chaudhry's intended destination, Sind's high court, hundreds of lawyers, some of them bloodied after being beaten up by MQM supporters, milled about chanting slogans and receiving news on their mobile phones about the trouble engulfing them. Outside, MQM activists with pistols tucked into their jeans, blocked the entrance.

Lawyers railed against the government. "This is a shocking attempt by the government to suppress the people," Iqbal Haider, a human rights lawyer and former senator, told The Sunday Telegraph. "Musharraf is making all sorts of mistakes to save himself from sinking."

As fans stirred the humid air, news poured in of unrest spreading to other parts of the country. Convoys of buses, cars and rickshaws festooned with flags of political parties careered through Karachi's main thoroughfares.

Tension has been simmering in Karachi for the past week, with rumours swirling round that Mr Musharraf had allowed conflicting rallies to go ahead to create the requisite level of disorder to justify the declaration of an emergency. The prelude to violence was familiar to Karachi, where hundreds of people were killed in ethnic violence in the 1990s.

Exacerbating the political furore in Karachi over the sacking of Mr Chaudhry is a decades-old and simmering feud between the MQM, a movement supported by the city's mohajir population who migrated from India at Partition in 1947, and ethnic Pathans, who were originally from Pakistan's North West Frontier province.

Opponents of the MQM claim that its actions yesterday were ordered in micro-detail by the movement's autocratic leader, via telephone, from Edgware in north London.

Lawyers surround suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry

Altaf Hussain wields great influence from afar over Karachi, a city of 15 million. Amid the chaos and bloodshed, the MQM chief addressed tens of thousands of his followers gathered along one of Karachi's main streets.

As his speech echoed over its audience, in other parts of the city gunmen from both heavily armed factions took up positions on rooftops and sprayed streets with automatic gunfire. Dozens of wounded were treated in hospitals.

Last night paramilitary troops were preparing to be deployed in the city as the possibility of a curfew being imposed grew.