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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 May 2007, 20:14 GMT 21:14 UK
Tension and violence rock Karachi
By Syed Shoaib Hasan
BBC News, Karachi

Opposition party supporters attack a car in Karachi
Karachi witnessed some of the worst political clashes in the city for years
"The rule of law is dead in Pakistan," says Salahuddin Gandapur, member of Sindh High Court Bar association in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi.

Mr Gandapur was talking to the BBC outside the gates of the Sindh High Court in central Karachi.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry was supposed to address the Sindh High Court bar association in the grounds of the high court.

Just around the corner, activists from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the ruling political party in Sindh, were protesting against what they say is the politicisation of the judiciary.

Mr Gandapur accused the MQM activists of physically assaulting lawyers who tried to enter the premises.

"They kicked and punched me, and used abusive language," said one lawyer with visible bruises on his arms and face.

The lawyers also accused the MQM of surrounding the entire premises of the high court and restricting movement in and out.

I witnessed several lawyers clambering over an old locked gate on the far side of the premises to reach the buildings.

Some of lawyers coming from outside the city said many of their comrades were detained on the way.

The administration had also blockaded roads connecting the airport to the city centre "to prevent any untoward incidents".

This had two major consequences later on in the day. When the violence started, the blockades prevented ambulances and law-enforcement personnel from reaching the scene in great numbers.

The blockades also stranded hundreds of passengers at the airport, and led to long delays and the postponement of flights.

The opposition and lawyers also claimed that this was done to prevent them from reaching the airport to greet the chief justice.

"The MQM activists threw rocks at us and then fired in the air to prevent us from moving towards the high court," a female barrister said.

She also said that some MQM workers attacked their local bar office and set it on fire.

The office had partially scorched walls and a burnt sofa when I arrived on the scene.

But the Sindh's ruling political party MQM denied that it was involved in any such activities.

"We are doing our utmost to prevent any incident of violence, but the opposition is hell bent on exploiting the situation," Dr Farooq Sattar said.

He said that four MQM activists had been killed in an attack on their procession by ANP workers.

The ANP is an opposition party drawing heavily from the ethnic Pashtun community.

Battle ground

In Karachi, the party had joined hands with other opposition forces to welcome Mr Chaudhry.

They are murderers... they planned this all along
PPP activist

These included Pakistan's largest political party, the Pakistani People's Party (PPP), and the right-wing religious alliance, the Muttaheda Majlis-e-Amal (MMA).

However, the welcome was soon laced with rounds of bullets, as Karachi's heavily-patrolled roads became a battle ground between the opposition and the MQM.

The law-enforcement agencies, which includes over 25,000 personnel belonging to the local police and the paramilitary Rangers, were deployed at dozens of locations through out the city.

The security strategy devised by the local authorities envisaged a three zone division of Karachi, with 17 high-risk areas that would be specially attended to.

But when the trouble started, the law-enforcement personnel appeared totally helpless.

This situation was echoed by the city police chief, Mr Azhar Faruqi, who told the Sindh High Court chief justice that "the matter was beyond his control".

The opposition accused the MQM of being behind most of the violence, and this sentiment was especially vociferous in the city's emergency centres.

Beaten with clubs

At Karachi's largest hospital, the Jinnah Post Graduate Medical Centre, dozens of female PPP activists shouted slogans against MQM chief Altaf Hussain, accusing his party of inciting the violence.

"They are murderers... they planned this all along," an enraged female worker said.

The general mood was one of extreme hostility towards Sindh's ruling party.

MQM supporters protest against Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry at Karachi airport
Protests meant Mr Chaudhry could not move out of Karachi airport
This was practically demonstrated a few minutes later when the BBC witnessed the brutal assault of an MQM worker, who had arrived with an injured activist at the same hospital.

Enraged PPP workers surrounded and proceeded to beat him with clubs before he managed to make his escape.

In the other parts of the city, pitched battles took place between the opposition and the MQM.

At other points, the opposition parties accused MQM activists of ambushing their procession.

The BBC was able to reach one such joint caravan of ANP-PPP supporters ambushed on their way to the airport.

"It was the MQM, they were waiting for us to pass," said a woman activist who was part of the procession.

The ambush took place on the Shahrah-e-Faisal which is the main traffic artery of Karachi, and through which the chief justice's procession was supposed to pass.

According to the activists, as soon as they passed a bridge on the Shahrah, they were greeted by gunfire from all sides.

"At least four people were killed, and many more injured," a PPP local leader accompanying the procession said.

The firing continued for over three hours, the activists claimed.

When the BBC reached the spot four hours after the firing stopped, three of the injured were still on scene.

Two had been shot in the leg and hips, while one was hit in the lower abdomen.

All were bleeding profusely and in desperate need of medical attention, which did not appear till we arrived on the scene.

The activists complained that no law-enforcement personnel had come to their aid, and no ambulances been provided to transport the dead or injured.

"We had to move them ourselves, and the MQM would not let us through to the hospital for a long time", the activists claimed.

Streets deserted

Another heavy gun battle took place in the eastern part of the city, allegedly between PPP and MQM workers, for several hours.

The PPP also claimed that one of its marches was ambushed on Shahrah-e-Faisal, and that 12 activists were killed and dozens injured.

We are surrounded by armed goons, and we will only go out when we are assured of our safety
Sindh High Court Bar association president
Journalists were also harassed in various parts of the city.

The offices of a local television channel, Aaj (Today), was attacked with firearms and several employees' vehicles were damaged.

However, no injuries were reported in the incident.

Sharah-e-faisal remained the main battle ground through out the day.

Of all the fatalities reported, as many as 25 were killed on the Shahrah.

Normal business and general activities were suspended throughout the day as the streets remained deserted.

The provincial government had announced a school and college holiday, and most people preferred to remain at home.

There were reports later on in the day that the provincial government had asked the federal authorities to send in the army to control the situation.

However, an additional force of the paramilitary Rangers was despatched from the neighbouring city of Hyderabad to help alleviate the situation.

In the evening, the spiral of violence was on the decline, and many of the roads and areas had been re-opened for traffic.

But Mr Chaudhry had refused to leave the airport until the procession of the Sindh High Court bar association appeared to greet him.

But this was impossible as the lawyers refused to leave the high court premises until their safety was guaranteed.

"We are surrounded by armed goons, and we will only go out when we are assured of our safety," said a highly agitated Mr Absar-ul-Hasan, the association president.

This was not to be and the Chief Justice departed after waiting for over nine hours for his welcoming committee to arrive.

The threat of violence, however, remains on the horizon as Sunday has been declared a day of mourning for those killed and injured the day before.

Violence on the streets of Karachi

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