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Tuesday, 25 September, 2001, 16:22 GMT 17:22 UK
Karachi tense in calm before storm
Pro-Osama Bin Laden demonstration in Karachi, Pakistan
There have been pro-Bin Laden demonstrations recently
By BBC News Online's Daniel Lak in Karachi

Here in Pakistan's commercial and media capital people have learned to mistrust, and even fear, periods of calm.

Usually they have meant that trouble is coming.

We're caught between the Americans and Osama, right in the middle

Karachi shopkeeper
This city has seen unthinkable levels of violence in the past.

Tens of thousands have died since 1991 in ethnic clashes, sectarian attacks and general criminal mayhem.

The uneasy sense of peace that reigns in Karachi streets at the moment is not engendering confidence.

Expecting the worst

Residents seem to think that the coming trouble, an American-led attack into Afghanistan, will hit their city hard.

Demonstrators walk on an American flag during a protest in Karachi
Anti-American sentiment was clear
"There's no good outcome to this situation, for Pakistan or for Karachi," says Abdullah Khaled, who runs a mobile phone shop in the teeming Saddar Bazaar shopping area.

"We're caught between the Americans and Osama, right in the middle."

Shuddering, he answers his trilling cell phone.

It's a call from a stockbroker friend.

The main index at the Karachi Stock Exchange, already reeling from a badly depressed economy, is down 34 points.

Business goes on

Not that the city has lost any of its fabled energy and business acumen.

"It'll pass," says Mohammed Azhar, a baker, behind the counter of his shop.

Anti-US protest in Karachi
Protesters sent a tough message
"The media always makes things seem worse, gloom and doom," he says dismissively. "We've got jobs, families, work to do. We simply have to pray for peace, every day."

Ironically - and irony is a Karachi speciality - people here are particularly worried about a peace march planned for Wednesday.

It is being organised by the mighty Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the MQM, the city's most powerful political force for more than a decade.

Led from exile in London by the charismatic and mysterious Altaf Hussein, the MQM has, at best, a chequered past.

At various times in the past decade, Pakistani governments have included it in coalitions, or called it "separatist, terrorist and criminal".


Now the organisation, whose armed supporters once fought running battles with the Pakistan army, is organising the country's first - and perhaps only - pro-American, anti-Taleban rally.

An armed Pakistani policeman
Police used force on demonstrators
"It's the mullahs," the Islamic clerics, says Shahbaz Ali, a bank worker having tea at a roadside stall near the MQM's stronghold of District Central.

"They want to prevent the mosques and madrassas [religious schools, some of which preach Islamist militancy] from taking over. They want to show that they still own Karachi."

Another patron of the same stall shakes his head. "God forbid that there's a clash," he says and walks off into the crowds, muttering to himself.

The authorities in Karachi are not taking any chances.

Fierce anti-American protests last Friday by supporters of Islamist political parties rocked the city.

Tough tactics

Several people died in tough police crowd control tactics.

Officials say the same measures - tear gas, baton charges, firing of live ammunition - will be used again if necessary.

Heavily armed units of the Pakistan Rangers paramilitary force are on constant patrol.

Police checkpoints clog traffic as officers search for weapons and explosives.

Karachi may be calm, but it is expecting the worst.

Recent history has taught this city some hard lessons.


Political uncertainty






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23 Sep 01 | Business
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