Seven killed in political riots in Pakistan's largest city

Thursday, April 10, 2008

KARACHI, Pakistan -- A street fight between political rivals spiraled into rioting in Pakistan's biggest city Wednesday, with armed men smashing cars and setting fires. Five people burned to death in one building and two were shot and killed.

It was the worst political violence Pakistan's new government has faced since taking office last month, vowing to curtail the powers of U.S.-allied President Pervez Musharraf and cement democracy after eight years of military rule.

The trouble broke out when pro- and anti-government lawyers punched and beat each other with sticks near the main courts complex in Karachi. Soon after, armed men in began shooting and torching cars in several districts, witnesses said.

A nearby building was set ablaze, and five charred bodies were found on the sixth floor, said police officer Syed Sulaiman. Two other people died of gunshot wounds, including a paramedic whose ambulance came under fire while trying to the injured.

Salman Naguri, a 22-year-old shopkeeper, said he saw two men on a motorbike shoot at passing ambulance, which crashed into an electricity pylon.

"For 15 or 20 minutes an injured man was crying for help from inside the ambulance but nobody helped him," Naguri said. When another ambulance crew arrived, the man was dead, he said.

It was 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 February parliamentary elections.

Lawyers from the movement were involved in an assault Tuesday on former Cabinet minister Sher Afgan Niazi, who was beaten 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.

A group of lawyers allied with the pro-Musharraf Mutahida Quami Movement, or MQM, had been protesting the assault on Niazi when the violence erupted in Karachi.

Police and witnesses said lawyers leaving a bar association meeting got into a brawl with the protesters. About eight people were injured in the scuffle.

Minutes later, gunmen in civilian clothes arrived on motorbikes and in minibuses and began smashing car windows and stealing their radios, said Abdul Majid, 50, who was selling curry and bread from a cart near the scene.

They also fired shots into the air. Majid said he retreated up a side street with several cowering police officers.

Hospital officials said the injured included a 7-year-old child with a bullet wound to the head.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani condemned the violence called on "all political forces to ensure peace and harmony" in Karachi, a port city of 15 million people with a history of violence among political rivals, criminal gangs and Islamist groups.

The violence comes as the government, led by the party of slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, has been trying to win over political rivals. It could need their help to strip Musharraf of his power to fire the prime minister and restore Supreme Court judges purged by the president.

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