Fear, Violence Grip Pakistan City
KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) _ Streets are dark because snipers have shot out most of the lights. Inside homes, people cringe with each burst of gunfire.
This is Liaqatabad, a poor neighborhood in central Karachi caught in a relentless war between rival factions of a refugee group. It is a place where young gunmen on rooftops shoot at police, residents and rivals alike, a battle zone so dangerous even the police are afraid to enter.
``It is now impossible to live here anymore,″ said Mohammed Fareed, a resident and shop owner. ``But there is no one who wants to buy my house.″
The combatants are members of the Mohajir Qami Movement, which represents Muslims who moved to Pakistan from predominantly Hindu India after the British colonialists pulled out in 1947.
Millions of the immigrants _ known as Mohajirs, or refugees _ settled in Sindh Province, whose capital is Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city. They long have claimed the national government ignores their needs and discriminates against them in favor of indigenous ethnic groups.
Frustrated by a lack of progress, militant Mohajirs turned to violence to press demands for equal access to government jobs and places at universities and other state schools. They soon built up an arsenal of heavy weapons that often are better than those of Karachi’s police force.
Several years ago the militants split over power and political goals. Rivals began to openly clash, taking over entire neighborhoods of Karachi, a sweltering city of 14 million people. Gunmen roaming eastern neighborhoods killed three people Saturday, set vehicles on fire and shut down shops, according to witnesses and police.
Fareed said he has to pay ``protection″ money to the militant leaders. It comes to 10,000 rupees a month, or about $220, a big sum for a small shop owner in Karachi.
Fighting among the Mohajirs ebbs and surges depending on the sporadic efforts of the national government to crack down. A heavy-handed campaign in 1995, during which human rights groups accused police of murdering captured militants, brought a two-year lull for Karachi.
But bloodshed erupted again June 1. Since then, more than 200 people have been killed, many of them civilians caught in the crossfire. A young girl was shot while running to the market. A small boy returning home from school was slain.
The three main militant factions have networks of informers, sowing fear among their opponents, critics and police.
``We don’t have any control over these groups. ...Most of them are operating independently,″ said a government official who belongs to the Mohajir Qami Movement but was afraid to be quoted by name.
Liaqatabad, a district of a few square miles, is dominated by the largest radical faction, led by Altaf Hussein. Its biggest rival is known as the Haqiqi faction.
Gunmen scurry through the neighborhood’s maze of lanes looking for their enemies. Almost daily, the tortured bodies of young men are found stuffed into burlap sacks and dumped in garbage bins.
Police and paramilitary Rangers mostly stay in armor-plated vehicles on the rare occasions they venture into Liaqatabad.
A major cause for the militants’ split is disagreement over what their movement should be fighting for.
Some radicals want Pakistan to carve out a fifth province that would encompass half of Sindh and be dominated by Mohajirs. Others would be satisfied for official recognition as an ethnic group, like the Pathan, Baluch, Punjabi and Sindhi peoples.
Mohajirs say they are different from the other groups because they are Urdu speakers. Although Pakistan’s official language is Urdu, it is not the mother tongue of the four indigenous ethnic groups.
The national government consistently has rejected the Mohajirs’ demands, and Karachi’s business and police leaders fear violence is spinning out of control. Fighting has paralyzed by large swaths of central and eastern Karachi and is spilling into western districts.
``There is a huge quantity of arms in the city,″ police chief Rahu Khan Brohi explained.