KARACHI (Reuters) - 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 has authorized 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 factions.
City police chief Azhar Farooqi said security forces had stepped up patrols and the situation was under control. There was no violence on Monday though the city was tense.
“The city is totally paralyzed. Shops are closed and very little public transport is on the roads. People are scared,” Farooqi told Reuters.
Government attempts to remove Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry over unspecified accusations of misconduct leveled 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 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 specter 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. Musharraf said Chaudhry ignored appeals not to visit the city.
In Islamabad, opposition politicians stormed out of parliament shouting “the general is a killer,” referring to Musharraf, and “MQM is a killer.”
A Supreme Court hearing into a petition by Chaudhry against an inquiry into the misconduct accusations was due to begin on Monday but was put off for a day.
Musharraf has called for the courts to be allowed to settle the case and has criticized lawyers for politicizing it. He has also ruled out a state of emergency and said elections due late in the year would go ahead.
In another twist to the escalating crisis, gunmen shot dead a Supreme Court official who Chaudhry’s lawyers said was a witness in the case. Police said they did not know why the official was shot. Relatives said it was a targeted killing.
The leader of an Islamist opposition alliance petitioned the Supreme Court calling for Musharraf’s removal as president and army chief as he had violated his oath by taking part in politics while in uniform and for “dragging the army into politics.”
Musharraf promised to quit as army chief by the end of 2004 but backed out of the commitment. Constitutionally, he is due to give up his army post by the end of December but he is believed to be reluctant to do so.
Analysts have speculated Musharraf’s motive for seeking to oust Chaudhry was aimed at removing a possible obstacle should his plans for re-election run into constitutional challenges.
In Karachi, the commander of paramilitary forces said the priority for his 13,000 men was averting ethnic strife.
Most of those killed when gunmen took over the streets were opposition supporters, including ethnic Pashtuns. Their MQM rivals are mostly the descendants of migrants from India.
Additional reporting by Faisal Aziz in KARACHI and Zeeshan Haider in ISLAMABAD