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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Something has happened in recent weeks in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city. More than 300 people have been murdered. The city is well-known for spasms of political killings. Rival political parties have battled for decades over power, money and land. But even by Karachi standards, it's been a disastrous summer, and it's happened in a giant city that's the economic heart of a country considered vital to U.S. security interests.

As often happens, it's hard to prove who's responsible for the killings in Karachi. Police don't make that many arrests. But NPR's Julie McCarthy has been talking with the families of some victims. And we should warn you here that some of the scenes you'll hear in the next six minutes are disturbing.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

JULIE MCCARTHY: This is the date market, a landmark of Lyari, a congested area of Old Karachi that was a no-go zone in this latest upheaval, but is now springing back. The late Benazir Bhutto's People's Party dominates this sprawling, gritty place. Gang leaders are also lionized in billboards in this area, where Baloch are the dominant ethnic group.

But ordinary citizens shuttered at home are suffering, says date merchant Mohammad Naeem Baloch. He says what ought to be a time of celebration - as the Eid holiday ends the month of Ramadan - is a time of anxiety.

Mr. MOHAMMED NAEEM BALOCH (Date Merchant): (Through translator) Especially for the laborers and the working-class people, they have been crushed because of this violence. And there have been dead bodies from various houses. So, in such conditions, how would you celebrate Eid?

MCCARTHY: Recently, a single neighborhood buried five young Baloch men on the same day. Sometime between the night of August 15th and the morning of August 16th, the five were abducted, tortured and killed, their bodies shoved into gunnysacks. Shahnawaz Baloch was among the dead - a father of baby triplets. His father, Maula Baksh, says Shahnawaz went out to buy his children new clothing for Eid when he was kidnapped.

Sir, I wonder if you could tell us, what did you discover? What happened to your son?

Mr. MAULA BAKSH: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Maula Baksh is saying that when he saw his son, his body bore the marks of severe torture. He said his son was tall and healthy, and that his killers, when they stuffed him into a gunnysack, used two gunnysacks and stitched them together and dumped his son's body on the side of the road near a graveyard.

Maula Baksh's son was not alone that night. He piled onto one motorcycle with his two best friends, Kamran and Saqib. Police say the bodies of all three Baloch men were dumped on a road in an area of town dominated by Urdu speakers, the shorthand term used to describe migrants from India who make the dominant ethnic group in Karachi.

Kamran and Saqib's uncle, Mohammad Hanif, saw their bodies when an ambulance service brought them home.

Mr. MOHAMMAD HANIF: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: He said they were wrapped in simple, white linen, but were drenched in blood. And he sent a nephew to ask a mufti whether the bodies should be washed. And the word came from the mufti: No. You can change the linen, but the bodies should not be washed, because he said they were martyrs.

The same night, two more youths - cousins - were killed. The weapons this time: guns and hand drills.

Relatives say none of the five slain Baloch youths belonged to any political party. They labored in shops and small industries to feed their families. Their deaths, like so many in Karachi, are shrouded in mystery.

A report published Pakistan's leading Urdu newspaper, Daily Jang, claims that a Baloch gangster killed the five men on suspicion that they had been spying for a rival gang, an insinuation the families deny. Relatives put the blame on criminals inside the MQM, Karachi's largest political party, whose roots lie in the Urdu-speaking migrant community.

Rival political parties are challenging the MQM's authority. Retired Lieutenant General Moin-Ud Din Haider - who once served as governor of the Sind province, the capital of which is Karachi - says the People's Party of President Zardari is alleged to have supported its own criminal mafia.

Lieutenant General MOIN-UD DIN HAIDER (Pakistani Military, Retired): And, you know, propping them up as a counterforce, counterweight to MQM. So, every party wants to increase its influence on its political turf, which sometimes become no-go areas for others, and that is also a cause of friction.

(Soundbite of child running)

MCCARTHY: Across town, in an Urdu-speaking migrant area, a mother and father grieve for their murdered son, Malik Irfan. Irfan's mother, Zareena Begum, says her son's head was separated from his body.

Ms. ZAREENA BEGUM: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Our hearts are broken, and our food is colorless in this season of Eid, she says.

This Urdu-speaking family opened a shop in Lyari, a place many Urdu speakers dare not go. When tensions over the murders of the five young men from Lyari exploded, 28-year-old Irfan was engulfed in the frenzy.

Malik Gulzar identified his son at the morgue run by the Edhi Foundation, the city's largest charity.

Mr. MALIK GULZAR: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: He says I didn't have enough courage to look into the gunnysack of my son's remains. But others I saw had their arms and legs chopped off. Even an animal is not killed in the way my son was killed, he says.

Yet Malik Gulzar does not wish to avenge his son's death. But neither does he have faith he'll find justice. Gulzar asks: If the murderers of a prime minister could not be arrested - a reference to the slain Benazir Bhutto - then who would nab our children's killers?

INSKEEP: A question put to NPR's Julie McCarthy in Karachi has she visited there. And Julie, I'd like to ask: What are police and the authorities doing during all these killings?

MCCARTHY: Well, the authorities have deployed the paramilitary force, the Pakistani Rangers, in these surgical strikes to round up people who they believe are the targeted killers responsible. But they're also under an enormous amount of pressure, here. The Pakistani Supreme Court, Steve, actually convened in Karachi to take up this question, and it directed the government to find those behind the killings.

And the chief justice asked at one point why the police didn't know that torture chambers existed in the city. So there is this attempt being made to assign accountability and to try to stop this ethnic hostility. But there has to be political will. And you've got the PPP Party and the MQM Party denying any responsibility or connection to the targeted killings. And as long as that continues, the killing in Karachi will continue.

INSKEEP: Are the police affected by the same political divisions that seem to have poisoned every other part of the government?

MCCARTHY: Absolutely. I mean, the analysts who are closest to this say that many members of the police force have gotten their jobs not through merit, but through political patronage. If you don't have merit but have patronage, it means that criminals allied with particular parties are given cover and the police are told to release them, and they do. They follow orders.

INSKEEP: NPR's Julie McCarthy. Thanks very much.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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