Calls for military action in Karachi as violence continues

KARACHI Sat Aug 20, 2011 2:14pm BST

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KARACHI (Reuters) - Pakistan's government is facing increased pressure from business groups to deploy the army in the commercial hub of Karachi after at least 65 people were killed in a surge of gang and political violence over the past three days.

"There is law in Karachi but there is no order," said Khalid Tawab, vice president of the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry. "Everything is going from bad to worse."

"The police has failed to restore peace, and now we need the army to come in and do that, and bring to an end the sufferings of the people of Karachi."

Leaders of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as well as almost all the main business and trade associations, have made similar demands, but it is unlikely that the army will heed their call because of its reluctance to get involved in political disputes.

Asked about the military's plans for Karachi, army spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas declined to comment, but said the military would carry out the orders of the civilian government.

Fighting erupted on Wednesday in the city's old district of Lyari, long a focus of battles between rival gangs and a stronghold of President Asif Ali Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP), before spreading to other parts of the city.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which dominates Karachi, and its rival ethnic-Pashtun Awami National Party have also recently called for army intervention.

But both parties, along with the PPP, are blamed by some officials and observers for links to the criminal gangs as well as engaging in turf wars to gain political space.

All the parties deny these charges.

"The army will not work on a political agenda," said Mutahir Ahmed, professor of international relations at the University of Karachi.

"In addition to the army itself, the government will also not want to involve the military in Karachi, as it will be a serious blow to its credibility. Politically, the PPP will suffer the biggest damage from such a move."

Karachi has a long history of violence, and ethnic, religious and sectarian disputes and political rows can often explode into battles engulfing entire neighbourhoods.

Street thugs and ethnic gangs have been used by political parties as foot soldiers in a turf war in a city which contributes about two-third of Pakistan's tax revenue and is home to ports, the stock exchange and central bank.

In an unusual move, the army earlier this month voiced concern for the first time over the ethnic and political violence in Karachi after 300 people were killed in July.

However, analysts said that the military will go no further, at least for now.

"In addition to being hard-stretched, this idea is a non-starter," said defence analyst Ikram Sehgal. The army is fighting a bloody insurgency by the Taliban and other Islamist militants.

"If the army comes in, there would be collateral damage... And that would be highly detrimental to their image," he said.

In the 1990s, the army carried out an operation in Karachi, primarily against the MQM, which was blamed for instigating violence at that time.

(Editing by Chris Allbritton and Miral Fahmy)

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