- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 30, 2004

KARACHI, Pakistan — Unidentified gunmen assassinated an influential pro-Taliban cleric yesterday, prompting a rampage by thousands of Sunni Muslims, who ransacked property and stoned vehicles.

Enraged by the drive-by shooting of Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai, rioters set fire to banks, shops, a police station and a KFC fast-food restaurant, and traded gunfire with security forces, injuring more than a dozen people.

Tens of thousands of mourners gathered for the evening funeral, where police fired warning shots in the air.

Mufti Shamzai, in his 70s, had met terror mastermind Osama bin Laden and was a strong supporter of Afghanistan’s former Taliban regime. The soft-spoken cleric was fatally shot as he traveled in a pickup truck to his Sunni religious school in the east of Karachi.

Witnesses told police that as many as six gunmen riding in two cars and on a motorcycle opened fire on Mufti Shamzai’s vehicle, wounding one of his sons, a nephew, his driver and a police bodyguard.

No one took responsibility for the shooting, which Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali called a “dastardly act of terrorism.”

In the riots, Sunni students, some shouting slogans against rival Shi’ite Muslims, took to the streets. Paramilitary forces were deployed to protect Shi’ite mosques, amid fears of sectarian violence.

The attack occurred three weeks after a suicide bombing killed 22 worshippers at a Shi’ite mosque in Karachi, and days after two car bombings near the U.S. consul’s residence that killed one person and injured 40.

Since late 2001, when Pakistan threw its support behind the U.S.-led war on terror, Karachi has been racked by militant attacks, some targeting foreigners, others apparently motivated by sectarian differences.

Nearly 80 percent of Pakistanis are Sunnis and live peacefully with minority Shi’ites, but radical groups on both sides often conduct deadly attacks against members of the other sect.

After Mufti Shamzai’s shooting, Sunnis — mostly students wearing beards, traditional white caps and tunics — set fires and pelted passing vehicles with stones. Hundreds raided a police station near Mufti Shamzai’s school, Jamia Islamia Binor Town, beating up three policemen and setting vehicles ablaze.

Police said rioters set fire to four banks and the Quaid-e-Azam Academy, an institute that conducts research on Pakistan’s founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. They ransacked shops, a KFC restaurant, a movie theater and a gas station, and snatched two ambulances.

In the worst clashes, about 2,000 rioters attacked a building housing a bank and a newspaper. Police in armored cars fired guns in the air as well as tear gas, and from within the crowd, automatic gunfire crackled back.

Asad Malik, the Karachi police chief, said 30 persons were arrested for creating a disturbance.

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