Pakistani police comb Karachi as death toll nears 100

Pakistani security forces combed troubled neighbourhoods in the country’s commercial hub, Karachi, on Saturday in search of gunmen as the death toll from ethnic and political violence, which entered its fifth day on Saturday, rose to 98.

Police and paramilitary troops were ordered on Friday to shoot on sight in Pakistan’s largest city, where an extra 1 000 paramilitary personnel were also deployed to control violence in multi-ethnic, lower middle class neighbourhoods.

“Our personnel have entered the area and are working to take full control,” said a security police official, who did not want to be identified.

A police spokesperson said 157 people had been arrested in the operation since last night, and 38 pistols and three AK-47 rifles recovered.

A paramilitary Rangers spokesperson said troops had rescued hundreds of people trapped in the troubled areas since Friday night.

“We have moved several families to safer places, and this exercise is continuing at the moment as well. The number of people evacuated so far is in the hundreds,” he said.

According to police data, up to 98 people have been killed since the violence began on Tuesday, while more than 150 people have been wounded.

Shops reopen
Karachi, home to more than 18-million people, has a long history of ethnic, religious and sectarian violence.

It was a main target of al-Qaeda-linked militants after the September 11 2001 attacks on the United States, when Pakistan joined the US-led campaign against militancy.

A recent report from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said 1 138 people were killed in Karachi in the first six months of 2011, of whom 490 were victims of political, ethnic and sectarian violence.

The city was completely shut on Friday and public transport idled after the city’s dominant political party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), announced a day of mourning in response to the latest violence.

But shops started reopening on Saturday and public transport returned to the roads, though people were still cautious.

“I have opened my shop today but I will see how the situation goes, and if it remains uncertain, I will close early,” said Muhammad Zafar, a bakery owner.

The latest surge in violence in the southern city came days after the MQM announced it was quitting the ruling coalition.

The MQM, which mostly represents the Mohajirs — descendents of Urdu-speakers who migrated from India after the creation of Pakistan in 1947 — and its rival, the ethnic Pashtun-based Awami National Party (ANP), are blamed for most of the violence, though both parties deny the charges.

‘War zone’
In some ways, Karachi raises more troubling questions over Pakistan’s stability than the north-west border regions seen as a global hub for militants and a huge concern for the West.

As the commercial hub, any trouble could disturb industrial activity, and have serious consequences for the economy.

Amnesty International criticised the government for failing to control the violence in Karachi, and raised questions over its orders to “shoot on sight”.

“By granting security forces the power to ‘shoot on sight’ the Pakistani government is effectively declaring Karachi a war zone,” Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific director Sam Zarifi said in a statement.

“Given the Pakistani army’s record of human rights violations and impunity, such licence given to the security forces, in a volatile situation, can only be a recipe for disaster, encouraging lawlessness, further violence and killings.” – Reuters

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