39 killed in Karachi violence: officials

Hasan Mansoor
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The funeral procession of Member of Parliament Waja Karimdad in Karachi today

Violence between ethnic groups and criminal gangs killed 39 people in Pakistan's financial capital of Karachi, police said Thursday, as the government again struggled for solutions to the unrest

Violence between ethnic groups and criminal gangs killed 39 people in Pakistan's financial capital of Karachi, police said Thursday, as the government again struggled for solutions to the unrest.

A former MP for the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Waja Karimdad, was among those killed in the fresh wave of violence in Karachi, where hundreds of additional police and paramilitary troops were deployed last month.

Spiralling unrest is a major source of concern in Pakistan's biggest city, which is used by NATO to ship the bulk of its supplies to troops fighting in Afghanistan and which accounts for around a fifth of the country's GDP.

Independent economist A.B. Shahid estimated that 20 percent of the city's business was shut down Thursday with markets closed in southern neighbourhoods to protest against extortion money demanded by criminal gangs.

The violence has been linked to ethnic tensions between the Mohajirs, the Urdu-speaking majority represented by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), and Pashtun migrants affiliated to the Awami National Party (ANP).

"The death toll in the violence since yesterday morning has gone up to 39," city police chief Saud Mirza told AFP, adding that "the situation is getting better" after more police were deployed in the affected areas.

Slum compounds in the Lyari area were spattered with blood, pock marked by bullets and damaged by grenade attacks that killed residents and left widows crying and beating their chests outside their homes.

The federal and the provincial governments have been at a loss on how to quell the unrest, which this year has been at its deadliest in 16 years.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani again dispatched Interior Minister Rehman Malik to Karachi and called for "immediate and across the board action against the criminals who were playing with the peace of the metropolis".

Malik drew widespread ridicule last month when he blamed 70 percent of the violence on angry wives and girlfriends, remarks that he quickly denied.

"Show no leniency to these elements who are there to ruin the city life," the prime minister said, following talks with provincial and MQM officials, but stopped short of announcing any specific policies.

Karachi, a city of 18 million and the economic powerhouse of the country, has seen its population explode since independence in 1947.

Its neighbourhoods have been swollen by a huge influx of migrants from across the country, but particularly the deprived, Pashtun northwest, looking for jobs and more recently to escape Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked violence.

Most of the killings have been reported in the southern Lyari neighbourhood, a PPP stronghold infested by powerful criminal gangs.

"The situation is still very tense in Lyari and other areas of southern Karachi with sporadic gunfire being echoed around these neighbourhoods," a senior security official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

He blamed criminal gangs for the fresh outbreak of violence and said more paramilitary rangers and police had been deployed to the troubled areas.

Karachi's worst-affected areas are impoverished and heavily populated neighbourhoods where most of the criminal gangs are believed to be hiding.

Victims and their families said many of those hurt were innocent bystanders.

"Children were playing in the compound on Wednesday night when two men opened fire on them, killing my nephew Dheeraj, a young girl called Usha and an 80-year old resident," said Kheraj Das.

"We are poor people, we don't belong to any political party. I am at a loss to understand why we were attacked and why our innocent children were killed."

The body of 28-year-old Muhammad Shahnawaz, bearing signs of torture, was dumped in the market area of the neighbourhood on Wednesday, but his brother said he had no grievance with anyone, nor any political affiliations.

"Shahnawaz went for dinner with his four friends, who were also kidnapped. Their bodies were also found from nearby areas", Muhammad Imtiaz told AFP.

"Why was my innocent brother killed and his three small children deprived of their father?" he asked, tears rolling down his cheeks.

Muhammad Hussain, 30, a resident of impoverished Kharadar neighbourhood, was shot and wounded in the stomach.

He said gunmen had burst into a restaurant where he was breaking his Ramadan fast and opened fire indiscriminately.

The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said 800 people have been killed in Karachi so far this year, compared with 748 in 2010.