KARACHI, (AP) – Pakistan’s largest city came to a near halt Friday amid fears of violence following the slaying in London of a senior politician from the local ruling party. Witnesses said a shop and two buses were set on fire, in signs of rising tension.
Gas stations, schools and markets in Karachi were all closed and no public transport was running as news of the stabbing of Imran Farooq spread. The city has a history of political violence, and revenge attacks and acts of arson often follow high-profile slayings.
Farooq was a member of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, one of Pakistan’s major parties and the largest in the coalition governing Karachi. The MQM is also an important member of the federal government in Islamabad.
The slaying could have implications for national political stability, especially if the MQM accuses its rivals of being involved. On Friday, an MQM leader said the party thought Farooq was killed in response to controversial statements made by another party leader.
Farooq’s body was found in north London on Thursday with multiple stab wounds and head injuries. London’s Metropolitan Police said a 50-year-old man was treated by paramedics but pronounced dead at the scene. No arrests have been made, and police said they were waiting for formal identification of the body.
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.”
On Friday morning, more than a dozen people broke into a plastics shop and set it on fire near the MQM headquarters, witness Javed Ali said. Elsewhere in the city, youths blocked the main road and torched two buses, said Asif Khan, an area resident. Local media reports also said some vehicles were burned and shots fired late Thursday in the city of more than 16 million.
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, including 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, Farooq left Pakistan the same year. Neither man returned to Pakistan since.
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.
MQM leader Salim Shahzad told Dunya TV that the party saw Farooq’s killing as a reaction to Hussain’s statements.
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 make up the Taliban. More than four million Pashtuns live in Karachi, and the MQM fears their rising influence.