Pakistani troops in control after Karachi violence

Sunday, July 10, 2011

KARACHI, Pakistan -- Pakistani forces regained control Saturday over trouble spots in the nation's largest city, where five days of political and ethnic violence killed at least 93 people and forced many to stay at home in fear, an official said.

The fighting in Karachi, a sprawling southern port city of 18 million people, has added to the political instability in this nuclear-armed, U.S.-allied nation and provided another distraction for the government as it fights a Taliban-led insurgent movement. It also undercuts the country's struggling economy, because Karachi is its main commercial hub.

The latest spell of violence is extraordinary even by the standards of Karachi, a city that routinely witnesses more than 1,000 violent deaths a year, many of them targeted killings linked to political, ethnic and sectarian rivalries.

It follows the decision by the city's most powerful political party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, to leave the federal ruling coalition and join the opposition. Such moves by the MQM have traditionally been accompanied by outbursts of fighting.

The fighting in some areas was so bad that security forces were ordered to shoot gunmen on sight Friday.

"Four or five homes were burned in our own street, and so badly that no one could put the fire out. And whenever someone tried to do so, there was a shootout," said Mohammad Kashif, who spent much of the week holed up in his house.

By Saturday evening, authorities said more than 150 suspects were detained and that paramilitary Rangers and other security units had brought the violence under "complete control."

"The Rangers have completely taken over the affected areas and the miscreants have been swept out," said Maj. Farooq Bilal, a Rangers spokesman.

Many of the killings, which began Tuesday, appeared linked to political and ethnic turf battles, officials said. Some of Karachi's leading political parties have been formed along ethnic lines, though all deny targeting one another's activists.

The MQM dominates Karachi politics, but over time it has seen challenges to its power as an influx of ethnic Pashtun residents has moved to the city and given a boost to the rival Awami National Party, a Pashtun nationalist party.

Also in the mix is the ruling Pakistan People's Party. All three parties were partners in the federal ruling coalition until late June, when the MQM said it would join the opposition.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik said those behind the attacks were ultimately helping the Taliban, who want "mass killings" and "destabilization."

The U.S. has a keen interest in keeping Pakistan stable -- it needs the country to stay focused on fighting Taliban and other Islamist militants, some of who threaten Western troops across the border in Afghanistan. But Pakistan has for the most part taken action only against militants who stage attacks on its soil.

Late Friday, a Pakistani warlord who has focused on fighting U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan condemned militants who carry out attacks on Pakistani soil. Hafiz Gul Bahadur's statement illustrates the splintered nature of the Islamist militant movement in Pakistan.

Because Bahadur's fighters don't go after Pakistani targets, the Pakistani military has largely left him alone. However, his territory in the North Waziristan tribal region has come under attack by drone-fired U.S. missiles.

Earlier this week, an army convoy was struck by a roadside bomb in North Waziristan.

That prompted the army to retaliate, including destroying a hospital where the suspected militants behind the bombing were believed to be hiding, said intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record to media.

Bahadur warned that his fighters would pursue militants behind such acts, saying they must be American agents.

"We give a go-ahead to all commanders in Waziristan, mujahedeen and people to kill such criminals who come to do such acts again in populated areas, houses or hotels, and we will take responsibility for that," said his statement, issued after he met a group of like-minded militant leaders.

Meanwhile, gunmen attacked a NATO oil supply tanker in Mastung district, some 50 kilometers south of Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, killing a driver and one of his helpers, said a government official, Mohammad Ismail.

The supplies for NATO and its allied U.S. troops in Afghanistan pass through the province which has long been the scene of a low-level insurgency by nationalist groups vying for a bigger share in regional natural resources.

Toosi reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writers Muhammad Farooq in Karachi, Abdul Sattar in Quetta and Rasool Dawar in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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