Karachi: Parts of Pakistan’s largest city shut down on Wednesday after an attack on a scrapyard pushed to 51 the number of people killed in four days a spasm of violence illustrating the government’s inability to stop the crime that has risen alongside Islamist militancy.
The violence in Karachi comes as Pakistan is engaged in talks with the US on the future of their shaky alliance against the Taliban and al-Qaida. US officials in Washington are expected to discuss on Wednesday a long-term military and security assistance pact with a visiting Pakistani delegation.
Karachi, a port city of some 16 million, has a long history of political, ethnic and religious strife, but this year has been exceptionally bloody. As of June, around 300 “targeted killings” had occurred in the city, roughly twice that of 2009.
In the latest attack, gunmen opened fire in the scrapyard, which was in a commercial market area, killing 11 people late Tuesday. The dead included eight Pakistanis of Baluch descent, said Sharmila Farooqi, a provincial government spokeswoman.
Many of the killings in Karachi have been linked to gangs allegedly controlled by political parties. The wave of violence in the city has coincided with Sunday’s election to replace a provincial lawmaker killed in August.
Because of its status as the country’s main economic hub, keeping Karachi calm is of prime importance to Pakistani leaders. A major chunk of supplies for US and NATO troops is shipped to the city before traveling overland in Pakistan and into neighboring Afghanistan. And al-Qaida and Taliban fighters are believed to frequent Karachi to rest and raise funds.
Farooqi said police detained 55 suspects in connection with the latest violence, and that some were linked to local political parties. Security forces were patrolling the city to prevent fresh violence Wednesday, she said. In many neighborhoods, businesses shut down, while public transportation was scarce.
The two parties most linked to violence in Karachi the Muttahida Quami Movement and the Awami National Party have their electoral bases in different ethnic groups that make up a large share of the city’s population.
The MQM claims to represent the Urdu-speaking descendants of those people who came to Karachi from India soon after the birth of Pakistan in 1947. It is secular and likes to speak out against the so-called Talibanization of the city, a jab at the Awami National Party, which represents the ethnic Pashtuns from the Taliban heartland in the northwest.
Raza Haider, the member of the provincial assembly who was gunned down in August, was a senior member of the MQM. Both parties were competing for Haider’s seat, but the ANP announced Saturday evening that it would boycott the election, saying the MQM would rig the vote. The MQM won the seat.
MQM lawmaker Haider Abbas Rizvi said the party had handed authorities a list of 150 alleged criminals it suspects in the attacks but that nothing had come of it. He not only blamed the ANP, but also faulted the Pakistan People’s Party, which control’s the provincial government.
ANP spokesman Amin Khattak said the MQM was to blame, noting that the killings began shortly after his party said it would boycott the election.
Also Wednesday, a police constable was wounded when someone threw a grenade at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Pakistan’s main northwestern city, Peshawar, said Liaquat Ali, a senior police official. Peshawar is right on the edge of Pakistan’s tribal belt, a lawless stretch of territory along the Afghan border where many militants shelter.