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Pakistan's Karachi shut after 45 killed in clashes

KARACHI (Reuters) - Clashes that killed at least 45 people overnight in Karachi scared residents off its streets on Tuesday as Pakistan’s largest city was on alert for more violence after the shooting of a leader in a dominant political party.

Officials said more than 100 people were wounded and dozens of vehicles and shops torched by mobs who took to the streets after Raza Haider, a member of the provincial Sindh Assembly from the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), was gunned down on Monday along with his bodyguard while attending a funeral.

The government blamed the Taliban and the banned militant group Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) for the killing of the lawmaker.

There had been threats against Haider’s funeral, but it passed peacefully and Karachi endured a tense calm in the late afternoon. Police said about 50 people had been arrested in connection with the violence since Haider’s murder.

Police said they have also arrested four members of the banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) militant group on Tuesday in two different raids, though they were not connected to Monday’s attack.

“They belong to the LeJ’s Fazal Mehsud group and were involved in the attacks in Lahore on the Ahmadi mosque,” said senior police official Fayyaz Khan, referring to attacks in May on two mosques of the Ahmadi sect.

“We are also interrogating them on different acts of violence in Karachi,” said Khan.

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Followers of the Ahmadi sect consider themselves Muslims but Pakistan has declared them non-Muslims.

The latest violence once again raised fears of instability in Karachi, a city of 18 million and Pakistan’s commercial hub, and about the flight of Taliban militants to the city after army offensives against their bases in Pakistan’s northwest. Some analysts said the violence could ultimately affect the economy. Karachi is home to the country’s main port, the central bank and the stock exchange.

The stock market was open on Tuesday but trade was dull and attendance thin due to security concerns. The main index ended up only 0.15 percent because, dealers said, the violence dampened investor sentiment. The exchange closed an hour early.

“This obviously raises concern and anxiety, and if these things continue, Pakistan’s economy gets undermined,” said Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a political and security analyst.

“It is a pathetic situation and exposes the helplessness of the government to perform its basic duty toward its citizens,” said Rizvi.

The MQM, a coalition partner in the federal as well as the provincial Sindh government, renewed calls for a crackdown on militants after the killing of its lawmaker.

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“For the past 3 to 4 years we have been pointing out and giving evidence about the presence of Taliban and extremists in Karachi,” said Wasay Jalil, a spokesman for the MQM.

“We were ridiculed at that time. But now everyone is admitting that the Taliban and the SSP are here.”

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On Tuesday, a day after the killing, Karachi was tense with police and paramilitary troops patrolling deserted streets.

Hyderabad, the second largest city of the province, was also largely deserted as were other towns after the MQM called for three days of mourning.

“This could be the last nail in the coffin and could be disastrous for the stock market because as it is, volume has been below average and this may lead to foreign investors exiting the market,” said Sajid Bhanji, a director at brokerage Arif Habib Ltd, of Haider’s killing and the ensuing violence.

Karachi has a long history of ethnic, religious and sectarian violence. It was a main target of al Qaeda-linked militants after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, when Pakistan joined the U.S.-led campaign against militancy, and foreigners were attacked in the city several times.

“All political forces in Karachi have their armed groups,” Rizvi said. “And then there are a lot of other groups - criminal, sectarian, drug mafia.”

Including last night’s death toll, officials say almost 200 people have been killed in targeted attacks since the start of the year, although analysts and political parties say the number is likely much higher.

Mohajirs, the descendants of Urdu-speakers who migrated from India after the creation of Pakistan in 1947, are the biggest community and dominate the city’s administration through the MQM.

It is also home to the largest concentration of ethnic Pashtuns outside the northwest.