- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 3, 2010

KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) — Gunmen killed at least 45 people in Pakistan‘s largest city after the assassination of a prominent lawmaker set off a cycle of revenge attacks, officials said Tuesday. Dozens of vehicles and shops were set ablaze as security forces struggled to regain control of Karachi.

Schools were closed and most business ground to a halt Tuesday in the southern city of more than 16 million,Pakistan‘s main commercial hub. While a thriving trading center, Karachi has a history of political, ethnic and religious violence and has long been a hide-out for al-Qaida and Taliban militants.

The latest unrest came after Raza Haider, a provincial lawmaker, was shot dead along with his bodyguard in a mosque while preparing to offer prayers Monday in Nazimabad area.

Mr. Haider was a member of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the political party that runs the city and represents mainly descendants of Urdu-speaking migrants from India who settled in Pakistan when it was created in 1947.

The MQM’s main rival is the Awami National Party, a secular nationalist party whose main power center is Pakistan‘s northwest and whose base is the ethnic Pashtun community living in Karachi.

Within hours of Mr. Haider’s assassination, gangs torched buildings in Karachi and gunfire erupted in several parts of the city. Many of the dead were killed in targeted, execution-style attacks, authorities said. An investigation had been ordered into who was behind the attacks.

Independent analysts say followers of all political parties in Karachi are heavily involved in criminal activities such as protection rackets and illegal land dealings. In certain neighborhoods, armed men linked to political parties stand guard at checkpoints.

While violence is still common, the city was far more dangerous in the 1980s and 1990s when there were regular outbreaks of political and ethnic slayings that left dozens dead each week.

Police surgeon Hamid Parhiar said that 45 people were killed and 93 people had been wounded, citing data from state-run hospitals in the city.

Sindh province spokesman Jamil Soomro said at least 10 people were arrested, and police and Army Rangers were dispatched throughout the city to impose order. But gunfire could still be heard Tuesday morning, and fires were still being set in some areas.

Schools and colleges in Karachi and other urban centers in the surrounding province were ordered to stay closed by the government Tuesday.

Officials did not say who was to blame for the violence.

“It is very sad, and we believe that it is the work of those forces who want to destabilize the elected government,” Soomro said.