Rival ethnic groups fought gunbattles in this hub of economic growth Sunday, an ominous turn in a political crisis that started with the ouster of Pakistan’s top judge. The death toll from a weekend of fighting rose to 41.
Funeral processions were accompanied by gunfights between ethnic Pashtuns and Urdu-speaking supporters of a pro-government party. Gunmen fired on ambulances, killing at least one driver, and the bullet-ridden bodies of some victims were found tied and blindfolded.
The fighting in Karachi has marked a serious escalation in a crisis that began when President Gen. Pervez Musharraf suspended the independent-minded supreme court chief on March 9. It has raised the specter of a return to ethnic bloodshed in a port city of 15 million people that has been the center of Pakistan’s fast-growing economy.
The government said it deployed 15,000 security forces to Karachi, but there was no sign that they intervened to stop the violence. Opposition parties blamed Musharraf and his supporters in the Mutahida Qaumi Movement party of starting the violence.
The Karachi-based MQM party draws its main support from the Mohajirs — Muslims who fled India after the partition of the subcontinent at independence from Britain in 1947. The party emerged in the 1980s when Mohajir resentment of Pashtun control of businesses and public transport boiled over into violence that killed hundreds.
Musharraf, a U.S. ally who took power in a 1999 coup, is himself a Mohajir, though he does not belong to the MQM.
Security forces failed to restore order despite the deployment of armored personnel carriers and pickup trucks topped with machine guns.
In a northern district, firefighters battled flames spreading through a row of Pashtun-owned shops after a funeral procession for an MQM activist killed the day before passed through.
Gunmen traded fire across a road dividing a Pashtun-dominated residential area from a mainly Urdu-speaking quarter in western Karachi.
Most of the victims of two days of violence appeared to be Pashtun, including, police and a doctor said, the bodies of two men found tied and blindfolded Sunday in an MQM stronghold.
Police also said they found the bullet-ridden body of an MQM activist.
Hospital officials said the death toll mounted to 41 with about 150 wounded.
Anwar Kazmi, an official for the Edhi charitable foundation, said its ambulance crews had been shot at six times over the weekend. In one incident, gunmen killed a driver and two patients at a roadblock.
The trouble in Karachi started when opposition leaders and the MQM called rival demonstrations Saturday to coincide with a visit by suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.
Musharraf accused Chaudhry of abusing his position, but opposition leaders said he wanted to sideline the judge ahead of possible legal challenges to his pursuit of another eight-year term in a parliamentary vote this fall.
Opponents accuse Musharraf of letting the MQM attack its rivals in an attempt to stoke turmoil and justify postponing both the presidential vote and parliamentary elections.
“We condemn this mayhem and we believe that the MQM could not have done it without the active support of Gen. Pervez Musharraf,” said Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for the main opposition Pakistan Peoples Party. “It shows that the government wanted to create a situation of civil strife to find an excuse for imposing an emergency and postponing elections.”
In his own mass rally in Islamabad late Saturday, Musharraf insisted he would not declare a state of emergency and said elections would go ahead a planned.
“My heart was weeping when I saw that people were dying, they were being killed, they were being martyred,” he told the crowd.
The MQM acccused opposition parties of starting the violence.
“They tried to give an impression that the ethnic residents are fighting each other,” said Farooq Sattar, a senior party lawmaker.
Rasul Baksh Rais, professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences, said the perception that authorities used the MQM to “teach a lesson” to its opponents could backfire on Musharraf.
Ethnic violence could flare in other regions, such as the already unstable Pashtun belt along the Afghan border, Rais said.
“If the government resorts to violence, what can you expect from the opposition because then there is no faith in the law-enforcing agencies and there is no faith in the credibility of the government and whatever it says,” he said.