tampabay.com

Political groups erupt in violence, 28 killed

An ousted official of Pakistan was prevented from attending a rally.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published May 13, 2007


KARACHI, Pakistan - A political crisis threatening President Gen. Pervez Musharraf exploded into violence Saturday when clashes between progovernment gunmen and opposition supporters killed at least 28 people and thwarted a major rally against military rule.

The violence in Pakistan's largest city, Karachi, was the worst in a two-month crisis shaking the government under Musharraf, a vital U.S. ally who provoked the turmoil by ousting the head of the Supreme Court on March 9.

Gunmen with assault rifles traded fire among bungalows and concrete apartment blocks in the city of 15-million, a major port and home to Pakistan's stock market. Shipping containers and immobilized trucks blocked streets, and men brandished rifles and handguns against a backdrop of burning cars and buses.

The attacks trapped ousted Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry at the Karachi airport, unable to attend what organizers hoped to be the largest rally yet calling for Chaudhry's reinstatement and for Musharraf to step down.

Musharraf loyalists insist that the president remains popular despite resentment of his alliance with the Bush administration to pursue al-Qaida.

But simmering resentment has been unleashed by Musharraf's removal of Chaudhry, who had a reputation for challenging government misdeeds. Critics accuse Musharraf of removing Chaudhry to protect the president's plan to seek a new five-year term. The government maintains Chaudhry was ousted because he had abused his office.

Opposition members accused the progovernment Mutahida Qami Movement of launching the attacks, saying that as they attempted to greet Chaudhry at the airport, they were attacked by MQM members with batons and guns.

Several activists who had been shot were lying in pools of their own blood. Doctors said 28 were dead and more than 100 injured, many of them from gunshots.

Musharraf appealed for calm and insisted he would not declare emergency rule.

Some analysts argue that sustained unrest will eventually prompt Musharraf's fellow generals - a key constituency in a country that has seen three periods of military rule since independence from Britain in 1947 - to withdraw their support.

That could lead to anything from a fresh coup to Musharraf's withdrawal, followed by elections and the restoration of full civilian rule.