Pakistani cities virtually shut down by strike
A Pakistani opposition strike virtually shut down Karachi and other major cities on Monday after nearly 40 people were killed and about 150 wounded in Pakistan's worst political street violence in two decades.
Authorities banned demonstrations in Karachi and declared a public holiday across Sindh province after the weekend violence in the city, which began when Pakistan's suspended top judge tried to meet supporters.
The government on Sunday authorised paramilitary troops to shoot anyone involved in serious violence in Karachi, Pakistan's biggest city, which has a history of bloody feuding between ethnic-based political factions.
City police chief Azhar Farooqi said security forces had stepped up patrols and the situation was under control. There had been no violence on Monday though the city was tense.
"The city is totally paralysed. Shops are closed and very little public transport is on the roads. People are scared," Farooqi said.
Government attempts to remove Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry over unspecified accusations of misconduct levelled on March 9 have outraged the judiciary and the opposition. The judicial crisis has snowballed into a campaign against President Pervez Musharraf and is the most serious challenge to the authority of the president, who is also army chief, since he seized power in 1999.
The opposition strike, called to protest against the weekend violence, saw shops and markets closed in all major cities including Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Quetta.
It was the first time since Musharraf took power that a strike call had been so widely observed. While stirring opposition to Musharraf, the violence in Karachi has also raised the spectre of bloody feuding that plagued the city in the 1980s and 1990s.
The opposition blames the government and the pro-government Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which runs Karachi, for the violence. The government says Chaudhry, who returned to Islamabad on Saturday without meeting his Karachi supporters, ignored appeals for him not to travel to the volatile city.
In Islamabad, a hearing into a petition by Chaudhry against an inquiry into the misconduct accusations against him was halted after one of 14 judges on the bench refused to hear the case, citing a possible conflict of interest. A court official said it would reconvene on Tuesday.
Musharraf has repeatedly called for the courts to settle the case and has criticised lawyers for politicising it. He has also ruled out a state of emergency and said elections due late in the year would go ahead.
Chaudhry is due to address lawyers in Islamabad on May 24. Plans for other trips were on hold, one of his lawyers said.
The commander of paramilitary forces in Karachi, Major-General Javed Zia, said he had deployed nearly 13,000 Rangers who would enforce their shoot-on-sight order judiciously. "Our first target is to avoid ethnic violence," Zia said.
Most of those killed on the weekend in Karachi, when rival gunmen took over the city's deserted streets, were opposition supporters, including ethnic Pashtuns. Their MQM rivals are mostly the descendants of migrants from India.
Gunmen shot dead a senior Supreme Court official at his home in Islamabad on Monday. Police said they did not know the motive though relatives said they believed it was a targeted killing.