Karachi's Plague of Violence Still Spreading


American diplomats used to say that, to be safe in this, Pakistan's biggest, most trouble-plagued city, you needed the same dose of street smarts required in New York or Los Angeles. Avoid bad neighborhoods. Stay away from crowds. Be alert.

But things took a nastier turn here last autumn and got even worse this year.

For reasons still unclear, the violence that has claimed more than 1,000 lives in Pakistan's business and trading hub since the beginning of 1994 caught up Wednesday morning with three Americans from the U.S. Consulate.

As they commuted to work in a van that identified them as American government employees to anyone who knows how to read a Pakistani diplomatic license plate, two of the workers were shot and killed in a street ambush. A third was wounded.

Some Karachi residents who have been trying to restore peace to the streets and bazaars of their city predicted that the brazen attack on the Americans, the first in Karachi's agony of bloodletting, was only the beginning.

"We were expecting it," said Jamil Yousef, a spokesman for the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee.

Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto denounced the slayings as "part of a well-planned campaign of terrorism."

Speculation immediately focused on a possible act of revenge for the arrest and extradition to the United States last month of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, an Iraqi citizen who was the alleged mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

But there was no immediate proof of a connection between Yousef's arrest and the Karachi killings, and the initial reaction of many Pakistani officials was to blame neighboring India, Bhutto's enemies or their own country's turmoil-infested political and social life.

"It is an attempt by people who are enemies of this government to continue with their sustained campaign of making Karachi appear to be unstable," Information Secretary Hussain Haqqani said. "It is an effort to spoil the relations between Pakistan and the United States."

There was no public claim of responsibility for the Wednesday shootings, and U.S. officials said it was premature to make a connection with Yousef.

"As we've said, we don't know anything about the affiliations, the identification or the motives of these people yet," said Jack McCreary, press attache at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad.

Bhutto is scheduled to visit Washington next month for talks with President Clinton, who denounced the killings, as did traveling Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

Bhutto was in Singapore on Wednesday, but sent Clinton a letter of condolence to express her sorrow at the Americans' deaths.

"Every effort will be made to apprehend the perpetrators," Bhutto vowed.

At the end of the month, she is also scheduled to play host to Hillary Rodham Clinton. On Wednesday, the White House said the President's wife, whose itinerary does not include Karachi, still plans to visit Pakistan on her tour of the Indian subcontinent.

"She intends to proceed with her trip," White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said.

He said the U.S. government is prepared to cooperate "with appropriate authorities" to hunt down those responsible for the Karachi killings. The FBI said it was sending agents to investigate.

The three Americans--a secretary, a communications technician and an employee from the mail room--had been picked up from their Karachi homes and were being driven to work in a 16-seat white Toyota van, U.S. and Pakistani officials and witnesses said.

About 7:45 a.m., according to police, the Americans stopped for a traffic light on Karachi's major thoroughfare, the Shahrah-e-Faisal. What happened next is tragically familiar to Karachi residents, even if Americans were targets for the first time.

Two men armed with AK-47 assault rifles tumbled out of a yellow taxi. The young, unmasked gunmen, who could conceivably belong to any of Karachi's criminal gangs or warring political, ethnic or sectarian factions, opened fire.

The Americans were traveling without a security escort, and their vehicle's license plate, bearing the number "64" that the Pakistanis have assigned to U.S. missions, clearly identified them.

The van's windshield was punctured by at least half a dozen rounds, Pakistani journalists who saw the vehicle said. The side was riddled with bullet holes, and all the windows and mirrors were smashed.

Killed were Gary C. Durell, 45, a communications technician, and secretary Jackie Van Landingham, 33, said Peter R. Claussen, public affairs officer at the consulate. Mail room employee Mark McCloy, 31, originally from Framingham, Mass., was wounded and was hospitalized in stable condition, Claussen said.

Nasimul Haq, the Pakistani van driver, ducked when he saw the armed men. He survived unscathed and drove his stricken passengers to Agha Khan Hospital, where doctors listed the two Americans as dead on arrival.

At the consulate, the visa office closed for the day, and the flag was lowered to half staff in mourning.

More than 100 police and Pakistani paramilitary Rangers with machine guns mounted on their vehicles arrived to stand guard outside.

Police said they identified the yellow Suzuki taxi as having been stolen at gunpoint at Karachi's old airport about an hour before the ambush. The vehicle was later found abandoned on a city road. Its owner, Zulfiqar Ahmed, was being interrogated by police.

After the ambush, U.S. Consulate officials tried to contact the 2,000-person American community in Karachi by telephone to inform its members of what had happened, Claussen said.

He downplayed the prediction that the attack might be only the first in a series.

"We have advised the Americans that we know of no threat to other U.S. citizens, family members or American facilities," he said.

The recommendation to American citizens in Karachi was essentially the same as it has been since last year: "to exercise prudence and not go to certain areas," Claussen said.

U.S. Ambassador John C. Monjo was in Karachi when the ambush occurred, and he met Wednesday at the consulate with Abdullah Shah, the top elected official in Sind province.

"This is a serious terrorist action that was meant to sabotage the prime minister's visit to America next month," Shah said later. "There are people who do not want an improvement in Pakistan's relations with the United States."

Shah noted that Pakistan has extradited suspected drug traffickers to the United States and plans to send more, suggesting that the country's powerful drug barons could be behind the attack.

Karachi, home to more than 10 million people, has become the blood-soaked theater of a bewildering array of armed conflicts that have involved immigrants from India; Sindis and other local ethnic groups; law enforcement agencies and the army, and rival militants from the Sunni and Shiite communities of Islam.

Since Bhutto pulled the army off the city's streets in November, claiming that police could handle the situation, the disorder and violence have worsened. In the last three months, more than 400 people have been killed.

Mosques were once sanctuaries, but at least 10 have been attacked this year.

Times staff writer Dahlburg reported from New Delhi and Times special correspondent Griffin from Karachi.

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