Police in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, struggled Friday to quell a wave of violence that has claimed at least 80 lives in the last four days and left sections of the fear-ridden city largely deserted.
Karachi, a port city of 18 million, has long been plagued by bloodshed stemming from links between political leaders and organized crime gangs. Fueling the violence are continuing battles among rival gangs for prime real estate, which can yield millions of dollars in profits.
In the first six months of the year, 1,138 people were killed in Karachi, according to statistics compiled by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
To quell the latest violence, police have been given orders to shoot on sight gunmen responsible for the bloodshed, said Sharjeel Memon, information minister for Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital. At least 1,000 members of the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force, have been deployed in the worst-hit neighborhoods in an effort to restore calm.
In previous years, much of the violence centered on the rivalry between two powerful political parties, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and the Awami National Party. The MQM, which dominates government in Karachi, represents descendents of Indian migrants who settled in Pakistan after the partition of India in 1947. The ANP, a secular group, represents Karachi’s large Pashtun minority.
Until recently they were both part of the ruling national coalition led by President Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party. However, the MQM broke away in late June and has begun talks about a possible alliance with Zardari’s chief rival, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who head a faction of the Pakistan Muslim League.
One of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s top leaders, Raza Haroon, denied that party rivalries were to blame for the latest violence, and instead accused the PPP-led government of failing to adequately secure Pakistan’s commercial hub.
“The government or police cannot relieve themselves from their responsibility by saying that this is a fight between two parties or groups,” Haroon said. “It’s the responsibility of the government and security forces to find out who these people are and what their objectives are.”
Bashir Jan, an Awami leader in Karachi, blamed the MQM for this week’s violence. “They want to pressure the government to the extent that either it dissolves, or their demands are met,” Jan said.
MQM leaders in Karachi declared Friday as a day of mourning, which caused most businesses to shut down. Many of the city’s main avenues and roads were deserted.
Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik said police had arrested 89 people Thursday night and that most of those killed were innocent bystanders. “Whoever is doing this has a program to destabilize Pakistan,” Malik said. “And they always target Karachi, because this is the hub of economic activity.”
In neighborhoods hardest hit by the violence, residents have refused to venture out and are running out of food. Mian Shera Nosh, a factory worker who lives in the Qasba Colony neighborhood, said his 5-year-old niece was killed by a stray bullet that tore through a wall in their apartment Thursday.
“People cannot go outside their homes, children cannot go into the streets, and men cannot go to work,” Nosh said. “People cannot even go to the local graveyard to bury their dead relatives.”
Nasir Khan is a special correspondent.