- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 13, 2007

KARACHI, Pakistan — A political crisis threatening President Pervez Musharraf exploded into violence yesterday when clashes between pro-government gunmen and opposition supporters killed at least 28 persons and thwarted a major rally against military rule.

The violence in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, was the worst in a two-month crisis shaking the government under Gen. Musharraf, a vital U.S. ally who triggered the turmoil by ousting the head of the Supreme Court on March 9.

Men with assault rifles traded fire among bungalows and concrete apartment blocks in the city of 15 million, a major port and home to Pakistan’s stock market. Shipping containers and immobilized trucks blocked streets and men brandished rifles and handguns against a backdrop of burning cars and buses.

The attacks trapped ousted Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry at the Karachi airport, unable to attend what organizers hoped to be the largest rally yet calling for his reinstatement and for Gen. Musharraf to step down.

Musharraf loyalists insist that the president remains popular despite resentment of his alliance with the Bush administration to pursue al Qaeda.

But simmering resentment was unleashed by Gen. Musharraf’s removal of Chief Justice Chaudhry, who had a reputation for challenging government misdeeds. Critics accuse Gen. Musharraf of removing Chief Justice Chaudhry to protect the president’s plan to seek a new five-year term. The government maintains that Chief Justice Chaudhry was ousted because he had abused his office.

Opposition members accused the pro-government Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) of launching the attacks, saying that as they attempted to greet Chief Justice Chaudhry at the airport, they were attacked by MQM members with batons and guns. The MQM is a coalition partner in both Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital, and in the federal government.

Officials said a security force of 15,000 was deployed in the city. But there was no sign of intervention in the violence, and the opposition accused authorities of at least tacitly approving the bloodshed.

An Associated Press reporter witnessed MQM supporters calling for ammunition and firing from buildings, apparently at opposition supporters who fired back.

In another district, a private TV network accused MQM activists of peppering its building with gunfire because of its live coverage of the violence. The channel stayed on the air as rioters torched vehicles outside.

Several activists who had been shot were lying in pools of their own blood. Doctors at Karachi’s four main hospitals said 28 were dead and more than 100 injured.

Gen. Musharraf appealed for calm and insisted he would not declare emergency rule.

“If you really feel sorry over what has happened in Karachi, then stop these protests,” he said in a speech late yesterday to about 50,000 supporters in the capital, Islamabad.

The president, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1999 and is still army chief, is expected to ask lawmakers to grant him another term as president this fall. He has not said whether he will give up his army post. The constitution forbids him from holding both posts after he completes another term as president and army chief this year.

Speaking from a pulpit behind protective glass near the federal parliament building, Gen. Musharraf said a judicial panel was examining Chief Justice Chaudhry’s case, and the presidential vote by lawmakers and parliamentary elections would go ahead as planned at year’s end.

He blamed “elements who tried to create turmoil by politicizing” Chief Justice Chaudhry’s suspension — a clear reference to opposition parties.

Some analysts argue that sustained unrest will eventually prompt Gen. Musharraf’s fellow generals — a key constituency in a country that has seen three periods of military rule since independence from Britain in 1947 — to withdraw their support.

That could lead to anything from a fresh coup to Gen. Musharraf’s withdrawal, followed by elections and the restoration of civilian rule.

The escalation in Karachi, which has a history of political and ethnic violence, leaves Gen. Musharraf and his allies open to charges that they are stoking confrontation — perhaps with a view to imposing martial law and postponing the vote.

“It was a state-sponsored massacre, and the sitting regime is to be blamed for it,” said Babar Awan, a senior lawmaker from exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s party.

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