Dozens Gunned Down After Assassination In Pakistan

Gunmen killed dozens of people in Pakistan's largest city after the assassination of a lawmaker, officials said Tuesday. Vehicles and shops were set on fire as security forces struggled to gain control of Karachi.

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As some nations worry about data security, people in Pakistan worry about security on the streets. Gunshots and fires have spread through Pakistan's largest city this week. It's a wave of ethnic violence in Karachi leaving dozens dead so far. NPR's Julie McCarthy is covering the story. She's on the line.

And, Julie, how did this begin?

JULIE MCCARTHY: Well, it began with this gruesome and brazen assassination of Raza Haider, who's a senior leader of the MQM Party. The MQM has dominated political life in Karachi. They're the immigrants who came from India. They're better educated. They're used to running things. And he was gunned down in a mosque where he was attending a funeral, and his assassination just touched off anarchy across the city.

INSKEEP: Anarchy. You've got a number of killings in response, and then fires being set in response, apparently?

MCCARTHY: That's absolutely right. The police were attacked. The city was described as rattling with gunfire. You know, Karachi's this huge place, 13 million people. Governance and the criminal justice system simply doesn't really operate at a very basic level to stop this kind of violence.

The political power in Karachi is divided along ethnic lines. That's what you're seeing here. They've been exacerbated in recent years by a wave of Pashtuns who have poured into this economic engine of Pakistan. They're displaced up north by the war and the turmoil there.

And so these ethnic tensions between the Pashtuns and the MQM, which is virulently anti-Pashto, are getting deeper and deadlier.

INSKEEP: Well, let make sure I understand this, Julie McCarthy, because we did have this lawmaker who was killed, and police do not seem to necessarily have a suspect in mind, and yet accusations immediately flew about who was responsible.

MCCARTHY: You know, this is always the intriguing question in these things, because these murders, which appear to be targeted killings based on ethnic hatreds, never really get solved, Steve. You know, the MQM immediately fingers the Pashtun community. There's this long-running dispute between the MQM and the Pashto over land, for example - who has got control of it in the city? Who is going to control the city?

And the MQM likes to project the image of the Pashtun community as - which is a very old one in Karachi - as nothing more than terrorists. You know, they come from the northwest of the country, the tribal areas, where there's a long history of violence. And by the millions, the Pashtuns have come here to escape all that violence, but they're painted with a very broad brush.

INSKEEP: Now, when you talk about the Pashtuns coming from the northwest to escape all that violence, are you talking about a mass migration that's essentially connected to this war that we're more familiar with, the fighting over the last many years along the border with Afghanistan?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, I think in many ways, Steve, this whole story is a story of dislocation of war. The Pashtuns have poured into Karachi as a haven from the violence. And also, you have the militants of the Pashtun community coming to this city. They find Karachi, with its huge Pashtun population, a place where they can simply disappear and melt into the community, and no one's going to bother them. And they repair and regroup and plot there with ease.

So, yes, I mean, in many ways, the kind of tensions that are being exacerbated are directly related to the dislocation that's happening of a community that's pouring into Karachi and, as far as the MQM is concerned, upsetting the balance of power in that city.

INSKEEP: Well, now how does it affect Pakistan, Julie McCarthy, when you have the country's largest city essentially shut down by massive violence across the city?

MCCARTHY: This is a huge question. You know, but the Pakistanis sort of bounce back from this. It's an amazingly resilient kind of reaction. Yes, these eruptions occur, and then three days later, the city is back and booming.

But this does matter to the United States, Steve. I mean, the United States is pouring billions of dollars into this country to enable it to work better. And the wars next door and all this upheaval in many ways is conspiring to undercut that effort. When you have anarchy in the largest city, you're not going to have a stable Pakistan.

INSKEEP: Julie, thanks very much.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Julie McCarthy, reporting today from Islamabad, Pakistan.

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