47 killed in revenge attacks for legislator's slaying

Police say more than 100 people were wounded and dozens of vehicles and shops torched in the Pakistan capital as mobs took to the streets after the assassination Raza Haider.

KARACHI // Gunmen killed at least 47 people in Pakistan's largest city after a prominent legislator was assassinated, provoking revenge attacks that paralysed the city yesterday. Police said more than 100 people were wounded and dozens of vehicles and shops torched as mobs took to the streets after the assassination on Monday. Schools and most businesses were closed yesterday.

A city of more than 16 million, Karachi is the country's commercial and financial centre and provides 67 per cent of the total revenue of the country's exchequer. But it has a history of political, ethnic and religious violence. It has long been a hide-out for al Qa'eda and Taliban militants. The violence followed the killing of Raza Haider, a provincial legislator. Haider, 35, and his bodyguard were killed by four motorcycle-borne gunmen.

"He had gone to attend a relative's funeral. Drive-by shooters attacked him near a mosque," Waqar Mallan, a police official, said. "It is a targeted killing." Within hours of Haider's assassination, gangs torched buildings and gunfire erupted in several parts of the city. Many of the dead were killed in execution-style attacks, authorities said. Thousands of angry mourners chanted slogans as Haider's coffin was brought for his funeral in central Karachi yesterday, which passed without violence.

Pakistan's prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, has appealed for calm and ordered an investigation into the assassination. Haider was a member of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the political party that runs the city and represents mainly descendants of Urdu-speaking migrants from India. The MQM's main rival is the Awami National Party (ANP), a secular nationalist party whose main power centre is Pakistan's north-west and whose base is the ethnic Pashtun community living in Karachi.

For several months now, a state of tense confrontation has existed in the city between the MQM and ANP. Both the MQM and ANP are part of the ruling government coalition under President Asif Ali Zardari. However, in Karachi, workers of both parties have been targeted in tit-for-tat killings, also known as "target killings". The government blamed the Taliban and the banned militant group Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) for the killing. Twenty people have been arrested, the federal interior minister Rehman Malik told the Senate yesterday.

However, MQM leaders expressed dissatisfaction with Mr Malik's assertions. MQM leaders held a press briefing yesterday at their headquarters and demanded that the killers be brought to justice. They said militants and Taliban take refuge in the city's Pashtun neighbourhoods. Aneeq Qaimkhani, a senior leader of the MQM, accused the leaders of the ANP of patronising the Taliban. "Taliban and other militant organisations have been making inroads," Mr Qaimkhani said. ANP leaders deny the allegations.

The violence once again raised fears about Taliban militants moving to the city after army operations against their bases in the north-west. The turmoil also could affect the economy. Karachi is home to the country's main port, the central bank and the stock exchange, which was open yesterday,although trading was minimal. "This could be the last nail in the coffin and could be disastrous for the stock market because as it is, volume has been below average and this may lead to foreign investors exiting the market," said Sajid Bhanji, a director at Arif Habib Ltd, a brokerage.

In the face of the upheaval, government credibility is also imperilled, said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political and security analyst. "It is a pathetic situation and exposes the helplessness of the government to perform its basic duty towards its citizens," Mr Rizvi said. The MQM, a coalition partner in the federal as well as the provincial Sindh government, renewed calls for a crackdown on militants after the killing.

"For the past three to four years, we have been pointing out and giving evidence about the presence of Taliban and extremists in Karachi," Wasay Jalil, a spokesman for the MQM, said. "We were ridiculed at that time. But now everyone is admitting that the Taliban and the SSP are here." Jameel Soomro, the spokesman for the Sindh provincial government, said the killing was a part of a broader "conspiracy".

"The country is in the grip of natural calamities and we are fighting against terrorists," he said. Provincial authorities have already banned public political meetings in Karachi in an effort to control intermittent waves of targeted killing. Followers of all political parties in Karachi are heavily involved in criminal activities such as protection rackets and illegal land dealings. In certain neighbourhoods, armed men linked to political parties stand guard at checkpoints.

Karachi was the main target of al Qa'eda-linked militants after the 2001 attacks on the US, when Pakistan joined the US-led campaign against militancy. "All political forces in Karachi have their armed groups," Mr Rizvi said. "And then there are a lot of other groups - criminal, sectarian, drug mafia." Including yesterday's death toll, officials say at least 193 people have been killed in targeted attacks since the start of the year, although political parties say the number is perhaps much higher.

Analysts say the violence has ethnic undertones. "It's Karachi's original sin coming back to haunt it over and over and over again. There is an unresolved ethnic problem in the city between Pakhtuns and Mohajirs," said Mosharraf Zaidi, a columnist for The News, Pakistan's leading English daily newspaper. "The violence is at the micro level," Mr Zaidi said. "There are very deep ethnic divides in this country that we never talk about."

smasood@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Reuters, the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and the BBC