25 killed Karachi clashes
May 12, 2007 - 10:02:56 PM

Islamabad, May 12 - At least 25 people were killed and around 80 injured Saturday as political groups clashed in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi before a planned appearance by suspended chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, hospital officials said.

News reports described the scene as a 'battleground' as armed workers of the pro-government party Muttahida Qaumi Movement - exchanged fire with opposition activists ahead of rallies.

Television footage showed blazing vehicles and smoke drifting across the city of 16 million inhabitants. Sporadic gunfire was audible as emergency services retrieved bodies and hospitalised the wounded. Some reports spoke of 27 dead.

Sides apportioned blame to one another for the worst violence to ensue from President Pervez Musharraf's decision on March 9 to suspend Chaudhry for alleged abuse of office.

'It's not the government that is responsible for the deaths today but the opposition, which insisted on holding rallies in support of the chief justice despite our warnings,' Sindh Province Interior Minister Shehzad Wasim told the Aaj television channel.

Opposition officials in turn pointed the finger at the pro-government party, saying the MQM had ignored a request not to stage its rally on the same day.

Thousands of lawyers and the opposition have staged repeated demonstrations and fuelled a growing political movement against Musharraf, who came to power in a coup in 1999.

Despite the gravity of the situation in Karachi, there was no question of imposing a state of emergency, the president stressed.

'There is absolutely no requirement and absolutely no environment for taking such a drastic measure,' Musharraf told journalists in the city of Rawalpindi.

Regardless of the bloodshed, thousands of people attended the MQM rally in Karachi in a show of support for the embattled president.

Tens of thousands more arrived in the capital Islamabad to take part in a pro-Musharraf rally amid tight security during the evening.

A reinforced glass screen was erected around the podium to afford protection to the speakers, who were expected to include the president.

Meanwhile, Chaudhry's lawyers claimed that security forces tried to forcefully detain the judge after he landed in Karachi to prevent him from addressing the legal fraternity in the city.

'Rangers personnel and police dragged the chief justice to the exit door,' defence counsel Aitzaz Ahsan told reporters at the airport.

The judge was given the option of either returning to Islamabad or being flown by helicopter to Governor House in Karachi, ostensibly for his own protection, Ahsan claimed.

But he remained confined to the airport lounge during the day after police blocked approach roads with containers, tankers and buses, apparently to prevent his supporters from staging a welcome.

Despite the deployment of 15,000 police and paramilitary troops in the city, opposing groups converged and shot at each other outside the airport building.

At least eight people died in the area, emergency officials told Aaj television, premises of which also ccame under fire for five hour with no intervention by authorities.

Four bodies were lying outside the studio, its correspondent said, while a mob burned cars and motorbikes belonging to the staff of the station. Aaj has given exhaustive coverage to Chaudhry's standoff with the authorities in recent weeks.

Three people were also killed in the city in politically related violence Friday night.

A lawyers' spokesman told the BBC that bar association members in Karachi had been attacked Saturday by MQM activists in various parts of the city.

'Our colleagues have been brutally attacked while the government has given the MQM a free hand,' he said. 'This is the end of rule of law in the country.'

The Sindh High Court was also surrounded by hundreds of MQM activists. The lawyers said that activists attacked them and prevented them from entering the high court premises where Chaudhry had been due to speak.

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