updated 5/31/2004 2:04:35 PM ET 2004-05-31T18:04:35

Unidentified gunmen shot dead a senior pro-Taliban cleric on Sunday, sparking riots across this southern Pakistani city by thousands of his Sunni Muslim supporters who ransacked shops, banks and a police station.

Police in Karachi opened fire to contain the angry crowds, who shouted slogans against rival Shiite Muslims, raising fears of sectarian unrest.

Some rioters fired automatic weapons as police moved against a mob of 2,000 who attacked a bank. The gunfire injured at least one uniformed officer and another man in plainclothes. Earlier, police said two protesters suffered gunshot wounds.

The violence started after gunmen riding in two cars and a motorcycle attacked the cleric, Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai, a fervent critic of the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He had been traveling in a pickup truck to his Islamic seminary in the east of the city, said police official Fayyaz Qureshi.

A body guard of the cleric returned fire and wounded one of the six attackers, Qureshi said, quoting witnesses. Four others in Shamzai's vehicle were wounded -- one of his sons, a nephew, his driver and a body guard -- but none seriously.

Shamzai, who was in his 70s, died of gunshot wounds in a nearby hospital.

No one claimed responsibility for the killing, and there were no arrests.

Anger in the streets
Angry students from Sunni Muslim seminaries at ethnic Pashtun-dominated areas of the city poured onto the streets, setting fires and pelting passing vehicles with stones. Riot police and paramilitary rangers were deployed as security forces went on alert.

Global dragnet"Our task is to protect Shiite worship areas as we fear a backlash on these areas," said Maj. Gen. Javed Zia, the chief of the paramilitary rangers in the city. "We are coordinating with police to maintain law and order."

Shamzai, a soft-spoken and scholarly man, was a strong supporter of Afghanistan's former ruling Taliban regime. He headed the Jamia Islamia Binor Town religious school, where thousands of students get Islamic education.

He rose to prominence after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America when he led a delegation of clerics from Pakistan to Afghanistan in a last-ditch effort -- that failed -- to save the Taliban from U.S. attack in late 2001 for hosting al-Qaida.

Aftab Shaikh, a government adviser on home affairs, described Shamzai's shooting as a targeted killing, and said authorities had warned him his life was at risk and had given him a police bodyguard.

After Sunday's shooting, hundreds of his supporters raided a police station near his school, beating up three policemen, and setting fire to vehicles, said Abdul Rashid, an officer there. Desks and files were strewn on the floor and smoke billowed from the fire.

Shops ransacked, buildings set on fire
Other Shamzai supporters -- virtually all seminary students wearing beards, traditional white caps and tunics -- set fire to four bank branches, ransacked shops, and partly destroyed a cinema and a gas station.

In the worst clashes, about 2,000 rioters attacked a building housing a bank and a newspaper. Police in armored cars fired in the air and with tear gas, and from within the crowd, automatic gunfire crackled back.

Karachi police chief Tariq Jamil said earlier that two rioters were wounded by police gunfire, and six police were injured by stone-throwers. Rioters also snatched two ambulances, he said.

Rioters set fire to the Quaid-e-Azam Academy, an institute that conducts research on Pakistan's founding father Mohammed Ali Jinnah. They then attacked stalls set in front of Jinnah's tomb, but were dispersed when police fired tear gas.

Calls were being made over loudspeakers at Shamzai's seminary urging his supporters to remain peaceful. Shamzai's funeral was likely to be held Sunday evening, and crowds congregated at the seminary to attend it.

Karachi -- Pakistan's largest city of 14 million people and the country's commercial center -- has been the scene of recent sectarian violence and terrorist attacks, including twin car bombings near the U.S. Consul's residence last week. On May 7, a suicide bombing at a Shiite Muslim mosque killed 22 people.

Much of the violence is blamed on Islamic militants, angered by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's support of the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism in Afghanistan, but clashes also occur between rival Sunnis and Shiites.

Shamzai had met with Osama bin Laden sometime before the Sept. 11 attacks, and the reclusive, one-eyed leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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