Karachi at standstill after London murder of senior politician

The largest city in Pakistan came to a near-halt today amid fears of violence after the murder in London of a senior politician from Karachi’s ruling party.

Petrol stations, schools and markets in Karachi were all closed and no public transport was running as news of the killing of Imran Farooq spread. The city has a history of political violence, and revenge attacks and random acts of arson often follow high-profile killings.

Mr Farooq was a member of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, one of Pakistan’s major parties and the largest in the coalition governing Karachi. His body was found in north London yesterday with multiple stab wounds and head injuries. No arrests have yet been made, police in London said.

The MQM is also an important member of the federal government in Islamabad. The murder could have implications for national political stability, especially if the MQM accuses its rivals of being involved. In a statement, prime minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani condemned the assassination.

“We have suspended all party activities for 10 days to mourn Imran Farooq’s tragic death,” said its deputy chief, Farooq Sattar. “It was a great loss to the party and the family.”

Local media reports said some vehicles were torched and shots fired late yesterday in the city of more than 16 million, but police said today there had been no violence.

The MQM is accused by critics and independent observers of being heavily involved in illegal activities and gangsterism in the city. Hundreds of its supporters have been killed over the last 20 years, including top leaders, in gang warfare in Karachi, with dozens this year alone.

The MQM’s leader Altaf Hussain lives in self-imposed exile in London after leaving in 1992 amid an army operation against the party, which the generals had accused of criminal activities. According to the MQM’s website, Mr Farooq left Pakistan the same year. Neither man had returned to Pakistan since.

Mr Hussain regularly addresses large gatherings in Karachi via telephone link. In recent weeks, he appeared to suggest that the country’s army should rise up against the civilian government, angering his party’s federal coalition partners, including the ruling Pakistan People’s Party of President Asif Ali Zardari.

The MQM represents mainly descendants of Urdu-speaking migrants from India who settled in Pakistan when it was created in 1947.

It has spoken out against the Taliban and other religious extremists, but rivals accuse the MQM of doing this mostly because of its history of bias against Pashtuns – the major ethnic group that makes up the Taliban. More than four million Pashtuns live in Karachi, and the MQM fears their rising influence.

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