KARACHI, Pakistan – Rival ethnic groups fought gunbattles in this hub of economic growth Sunday, an ominous turn in a political crisis that started with the ouster of Pakistan’s top judge. The death toll from weekend fighting rose to 41.
Funeral processions were accompanied by gunfights between ethnic Pashtuns and Urdu-speaking supporters of a pro-government party. Gunmen fired on ambulances, killing at least one driver, and the bullet-ridden bodies of some victims were found tied and blindfolded.
Today, gunmen shot and killed a senior official of the Pakistan’s highest court at his home in the capital before dawn, police said. Syed Hamid Raza, an additional registrar at the supreme court, was killed in a residential area of Islamabad, but the motive behind his killing was not known, said Ghulam Mohammed Baqir, a local police chief.
“I can only confirm that Syed Hamid Raza has been killed, and we are still investigating,” he said.
The fighting in Karachi has marked a serious escalation in a crisis that began when President Gen. Pervez Musharraf suspended the independent-minded supreme court chief on March 9. It has raised the specter of a return to ethnic bloodshed in a port city of 15 million people.
The government said it deployed 15,000 security forces to Karachi, but there was no sign that they intervened to stop the violence. Opposition parties blamed Musharraf and his supporters in the Mutahida Qaumi Movement party for starting the violence.
The Karachi-based MQM party draws its main support from the Mohajirs – Muslims who fled India after the partition of the subcontinent at independence from Britain in 1947. The party emerged in the 1980s when Mohajir resentment of Pashtun control of businesses and public transport boiled over.
Musharraf, a U.S. ally who took power in a 1999 coup, is a Mohajir, though he does not belong to the MQM.