Karachi braces for fresh wave of violence: 'The police are just spectators. I want the army to take control'

Pakistan on 03 September 2013
Location : Karachi, Pakistan | Source : The Independent. Image Source: The Independent

Faced with spiralling levels of violence, residents of Pakistan’s biggest city are looking to the military for help.

The city is bracing itself.

Amid a fresh wave of violence, Karachi is readying for a security operation to target criminal gangs and armed political groups which  have been bleeding Pakistan’s largest city as they battle for control. There have even been demands to send in the army.

The situation is an important test for Nawaz Sharif, the recently elected prime minister, who will travel to Karachi on Tuesday and meet police and security forces before deciding what steps to make.

“I think it is a major challenge and I think he has to take it,” said Irfan Ullah Khan Marwat, a member of the provincial assembly and a senior figure within Mr Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). “He has to come up with a plan to tackle the situation and that means an across-the-boards operation.”

The vast port city, home to as many as 25m people from across Pakistan and beyond its borders, has long been rocked by violence that has it roots in a deadly combination of ethnicity, political affiliation and a battle for Karachi’s resources. But the targeted killings and bomb attacks have spread in the last few years, and following a lull in the aftermath of the May election, they are once again on the rise.

“The violence has grown. The political people are ruining the peace of the city,” said Amjad Ali, a courier driver who keeps in his head a list of the city’s most perilous neighbourhoods. “None of the political parties are sincere about the city - it is all about personal interest. If the government wanted to stop this, it could do so in a day.”

The evidence of the daily killings is revealed in stark fashion on the front pages of the city’s newspapers. Lal Mohammad, owner of a tea-shop in Kharadar, an area close to the docks, likes to buy several publications every morning for his customers to browse. He ensures he always buys Jaanbaaz (Fearless or Daredevil), which specialises in crime stories.

The front-page of last Friday’s edition contained the faces of nine men who had been killed the day before; all the images had been taken in the mortuary and the men’s faces were broken and blood-stained. It listed their names – Arshad, Noshad, Habib Memon, Javed Memon, Yasser Baloch, Abdul Malik Karacha, Nyab Langra, Aziz and an unidentified man - and claimed six were members of political parties.

“People like to look and see which people were killed and which political party they were linked to,” said Mr Mohammed.

Mr Mohammad knew a thing or two about political violence. Every month, he said, he handed over R5,000 (£30) to two politically-affiliated gangs which sent him demands. “If I did not pay, they would kill me.”

Asked why he did not turn to the police, he said: “The police are just spectators. I want the military to come and take control. A military operation would rid us of the extortionists and criminals.”

Many of the major political parties – the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which controls the provincial government and which has traditionally been supported by the city’s Baloch community, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which represents the Urdu-speaking community that moved to Karachi after partition and whose leader, Altaf Hussain, lives in London where the party is the focus of a murder probe, and the Awami National Party (ANP), which gets support from the growing Pashtun population – have been accused of supporting armed gangs. All deny it.

Karachi also has its fair share of sectarian violence and killings carried out by Taliban militants. But last week, the head of the paramilitary unit with responsibility for tackling the city’s violence, said the current spate of killings were directly linked to mainstream political groups.

Speaking at a special hearing of the Pakistan Supreme Court, established to look into the crisis, Maj Gen Rizwan Akhter said the killings were the handiwork of the militant wings of political parties.

Karachi is responsible for generating anywhere up to half of Pakistan’s  GDP, more if tariffs and taxes on imports are included, and the violence has a debilitating impact on businesses.

Muhammad Atiq Mir, an official of the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry, claimed a single shutdown of the city could result in losses of an extraordinary £2.5bn.

“During the last five years, the markets have not been able to stay open all the time. There have been more than 50 such strikes,” he said. “Around 30 per cent of the city’s neighbourhoods are affected by the violence.”

Among the areas that have been the focus of violence is Lyari, a working-class area of narrow lanes located close to the docks. Traditionally a stronghold for the PPP, other parties have been trying to establish themselves. 

Among the organisations blamed for the violence in Lyari and accused of gangsterism is the so-called People’s Aman Committee (PAC), an outfit widely considered to be a militia of the PPP. (Both the PPP and the PAC deny such a link.)

The outfit is supposedly outlawed, but when The Independent visited the home of its “former spokesman”, Zafar Baloch, he was lying on a mattress and taking part by means of his mobile phone in a one-hour talk show with a local television news channel. (While Mr Baloch participated in the discussion, his colleagues and young daughter watched an animated cartoon about a cat, dubbed into Baloch, on a flat-screen television.)

Though he displayed a government licence that apparently permits him to own an AK47 assault rifle, Mr Baloch claimed the PAC had been disbanded and that it was only ever a charitable group.

“Yes, there is fighting,” said Mr Baloch, whose leg remains badly injured following a gun attack two years ago. “The is fighting is about different things, different affiliations, donations, the animal skins collected after Eid.”

As to the current spate of violence in his area, he said: “The MQM wants my land. I want my rights. It’s an ideal location – it’s near the port, near the seafront. It’s strategically important.”

In recent weeks there have been clashes in Lyari between the PAC and members of the Kutchi ethnic community, which is said to be supported by the MQM.

Nabil Gabol, a former PPP politician who is now an MQM member of the national assembly, denied his new party had links to any armed militia. “I have never seen any armed groups,” said Mr Gabol, who was recently informed he was on a Taliban target list.

The Kutchi community also denied any formal link to the MQM. But Hussain Kutchi, head of the so-called Kutchi Rabta Committee, said the MQM offered “moral support” to his community. Members of the community have been forced to flee Lyari in recent days as a result of the violence and around a dozen families are sleeping on the floor of a nearby community centre as they are unable to return to their homes.

Sitting in candlelight as his quarter of Lyari was plunged into darkness by one of the ubiquitous power-cuts, Mr Kutchi said be believed the fighting was the result of a struggle to control a handful of roads that led to the port.

“This is a transit route for cargo, for the NATO trucks,” he said. “They want to control those vehicles.”

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