Clashes between government supporters and opponents set off rioting in Pakistan's biggest city Wednesday, leaving seven people dead in the worst outburst of political violence since a new government took office.
A building near Karachi's courts was set ablaze, and five charred bodies were found inside, said police officer Syed Sulaiman. Two people died of gunshot wounds, including a paramedic whose ambulance came under fire while trying to help the injured.
The trouble began when a group of attorneys protested in downtown Karachi against an assault on a former Cabinet member aligned with President Pervez Musharraf. The protesters say they came under attack by lawyers aligned with the new coalition government, which has vowed to curb Musharraf's powers.
It was not immediately clear how the trouble spread or who was responsible for the arson and shooting, which occurred mainly in a stronghold of the pro-Musharraf Mutahida Quami Movement party.
The turmoil was testing the stability of Pakistan's new government, which took office after routing Musharraf's allies in February parliamentary elections. The coalition is considering how to cut the U.S.-allied president's authority and cement Pakistan's return to democracy after eight years of military rule.
It was also the second episode to tarnish a powerful lawyers' movement that led months of protests against Musharraf, galvanizing his opponents and contributing to the defeat of his allies in the elections.
Minister attacked day earlier
On Tuesday, protesters — included black-suited attorneys — besieged former Cabinet minister Sher Afgan Niazi, hitting him and beating him with shoes as he emerged from his office. Police hurried him into an ambulance, which was stoned and had its ignition key stolen, forcing security forces to push it away from the scene.
Attorneys allied with the Mutahida Quami Movement were protesting the assault on Niazi when the violence erupted in Karachi.
"Our lawyers were staging a peaceful demonstration when the so-called lawyers of the Karachi Bar Association attacked our lawyers," said party leader Hyder Rizvi.
At least eight people were injured in the initial brawl, said police officer Tahir Naveed. A 7-year-old child was being treated for a bullet wound to the head, said Farhan Jokhio, a doctor at a city hospital.
Dozens of cars and buses were torched. Later, paramilitary forces in helmets and body armor and security officers with automatic weapons patrolled the streets. Vendors shuttered their shops, and there was little traffic.
Karachi, a city of some 15 million people, has a history of violence among rival political parties, armed criminal gangs and Islamist groups.
Lawyers' leader resigns
Aitzaz Ahsan, a prominent anti-Musharraf lawyer and president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, tried in vain to disperse the crowd that assaulted Niazi. Ahsan announced later that he was resigning as association president in protest.
His resignation coincides with growing speculation in Pakistan's media about differences in the new coalition government on how to restore the judges purged by Musharraf and whether a split will help the president cling to power.
Since Musharraf's opponents won the February elections, Ahsan has warned of more street protests unless they keep a promise to restore the judges.
Both Musharraf and the head of the new government, Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, have condemned the recent violence and appealed for political stability.
The attack on the Cabinet minister came a day after another close Musharraf associate was beaten with a shoe and heckled in the provincial legislature.
The two biggest parties in the coalition have sought to blame Pakistan's feared intelligence agencies for stoking trouble on Musharraf's behalf.
Shahbaz Sharif, brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif blamed the mushrooming unrest on the "Machiavellian shenanigans of dictatorship."
Musharraf allies have seized on the trouble to denounce the lawyers' movement and accuse the new administration of persecuting and humiliating its opponents.
"This is because of the president because they think that I am his companion and I think he is the nation's asset," Niazi told Express News TV.