Mobs Rampage through Pakistani Cities; Cars, Banks, Gas Stations Torched Sharif’s Party will Boycott Elections

My column, “With Bhutto gone, does Bush have a Plan B?” is online at Excerpt:

‘ Pakistan’s future is now murky, and to the extent that this nation of 160 million buttresses the eastern flank of American security in the greater Middle East, its fate is profoundly intertwined with America’s own. The money for the Sept. 11 attacks was wired to Florida from banks in Pakistan, and al-Qaida used the country for transit to Afghanistan. Instability in Pakistan may well spill over into Afghanistan, as well, endangering the some 26,000 U.S. troops and a similar number of NATO troops in that country. And it is not as if Afghanistan were stable to begin with. If Pakistani politics finds its footing, if a successor to Benazir Bhutto is elected in short order by the PPP and the party can remain united, and if elections are held soon, the crisis could pass. If there is substantial and ongoing turmoil, however, Muslim radicals will certainly take advantage of it.

In order to get through this crisis, Bush must insist that the Pakistani Supreme Court, summarily dismissed and placed under house arrest by Musharraf, be reinstated. The PPP must be allowed to elect a successor to Ms. Bhutto without the interference of the military. Early elections must be held, and the country must return to civilian rule. Pakistan’s population is, contrary to the impression of many pundits in the United States, mostly moderate and uninterested in the Taliban form of Islam. But if the United States and “democracy” become associated in their minds with military dictatorship, arbitrary dismissal of judges, and political instability, they may turn to other kinds of politics, far less favorable to the United States. Musharraf may hope that the Pakistani military will stand with him even if the vast majority of people turn against him. It is a forlorn hope, and a dangerous one, as the shah of Iran discovered in 1978-79. ‘

I am appalled by the rightwing US pundits who are taking advantage of Bhutto’s assassination to blame “the people of Pakistan” for “extremism.” Benazir’s party would have won at least a plurality in parliament. The PPP is a moderate, middle class party, and it has done well in unrigged elections during the past 20 years. She was killed by an extremist of some sort. The Muslim fundamentalist parties usually only get 3 percent of the vote in national elections, and they got 11.3 percent of the popular vote in 2002 only because Musharraf interfered with the PPP and Muslim League campaigns.

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a lifelong rival of Benazir Bhutto, claimed that he, too, had been targeted for assassination on Thursday, but had escaped it. He said his party would boycott the January 8 elections called by President Pervez Musharraf, to protest Bhutto’s death, and he called on other parties to boycott, as well. Sharif intimated that the Pakistani military was behind Ms. Bhutto’s assassination.

In what may be a preview of civil unrest, A gun battle broke out between two factions of the Muslim League, leaving 4 persons dead. The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) group resisted encroachment from the Pakistan Muslim League (Qa’id-i A’zam). The PML-N is loyal to Nawaz Sharif, while PML (Q) is very close to Pervez Musharraf. Four Nawaz supporters were killed in the clash.

David Rohde of the NYT, who has been doing excellent reporting from Pakistan, wonders if President Pervez Musharraf can survive the crisis provoked by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Rohde recently reported on a nation-wide poll in Pakistan that showed that 67% of Pakistanis wanted Musharraf to resign, and 70% did not believe his government deserved reelection.

Likely the PPP will now select another leader. It has declared a 40-day mourning period and my guess is that elections therefore cannot be held until early February. The best chance for everyone getting out of this mess with hide intact is for the the PPP and the Muslim League to contest February elections and for a strong parliament to emerge with genuine grassroots support. If that does not happen, I am afraid of what might. This is a nuclear power we are talking about, in the middle of a very dangerous neighborhood.

The seriousness of the situation in the streets of some of Pakistan’s important towns and cities doesn’t seem to me to be being reported in the US press and media. In contrast, Pakistani newspapers are giving chilling details of large urban centers turned into ghost towns on Friday morning, with no transport available, hundreds of thousands of persons stranded far from home, shops closed, and banks, gas stations, police stations and automobiles torched. Karachi, Hyderabad, Larkana, Sukkur, Jacobabad and many others in Sindh Province fell victim to the violence (Bhutto was from Larkana in Sindh but had a residence in Karachi). The police seemed to be AWOL for the most part in these cities, allowing the rioting and looting to go on unhindered.

Here is a tally of violence in the major port city of Karachi (population 11 million inside city limits) overnight, resulting from riots to protest the killing of Benazir Bhutto:

Number of vehicles burned: 150
Number of streets where tires were set afire: 26
Number of banks set on fire: 16
Number of gas stations torched: 13
Number of persons shot dead: 10
Number of persons injured: 68
Number of PIA flights coming in: 0
Number of shops and businesses closed: Most

The News adds:

‘ [Karachi:] one of the posh areas of the city Zamzama was ransacked by unidentified people who looted showrooms, shops and boutiques. Within minutes of the breaking of the news of the death of PPP chairperson, enraged crowds went on the rampage, indiscriminately burning cars, motorcycles, fire tenders and banks, plunging the whole city into a state of lawlessness and anarchy that was seldom seen before . . .

The uncontrolled protestors put the Gulistan-e-Jauhar Police Station on fire. Four Chinese engineers got stranded in Gulshan-e-Iqbal area and sought refuge at the Gulshan-e-Iqbal Police Station. They were later safely evacuated from there.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of employees of various companies, corporate houses and shops were stranded when public transport disappeared from the city’s main arteries. These people were seen walking on roads for hours to reach their homes. On the other hand, thousands of employees were forced to stay back at their offices or took refuge with their friends and relatives. . . ‘

Throughout the towns and cities of Sindh Province, violence paralyzed urban life and most often transport workers went home, stranding people in mosques and offices. The News reports:

‘ The office of District Nazim was attacked and some branches of commercial banks and multinational restaurants and hotels were also burnt during the ongoing violence.

The road and train link of Hyderabad with other parts of the province and country was also badly affected after a train was set ablaze. However, no injury was reported.

A large number of people had been stranded in mosques and offices because of non-availability of transport.

Some offices of the electric supply company were also torched and police stations were also attacked while minor scuffles between police and the protesters were also reported.

Our Sukkur correspondent adds: Violence erupted throughout interior Sindh, including Sukkur, Larkana, Rohri, Salehpat, Pano Akil, Ghotki, Daharki, Ubauro, Shikarpur, Khairpur, Jacobabad, Kandhkot, Thull, Tangwani and other cities and towns, on Thursday night following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

In Sukkur, enraged mob set ablaze the Taluka council office, State Life Building, fruit and vegetable market, besides burning tyres on various streets.

In Rohri, the protesting youth attacked the residence of District Nazim Sukkur Syed Nasir Hussain Shah and damaged the house.

In Larkana, four banks, including a private and nationalised bank, were set ablaze and the bank employees were locked inside the bank, but no casualty was reported. The unruly mob also caused damage to government offices and vehicles, while all the main bazaars remained closed.

In Pano Akil, the railway station and the Nadra office were set ablaze, while the unruly people were burning tyres at various places.

In Khairpur, two persons lost their lives in an exchange of fire between police and agitators.

Similar protests were being carried out in other cities and towns of interior Sindh including, Ghotki, Daharki, Ubauro, Shikarpur, Jacobabad, Kashmore, Kandhkot, Thull, etc, where enraged people attacked many government offices and caused damage. The protesters also blocked railway tracks at different places.

Despite large-scale incidents of violence, no police personnel was seen in the cities, while most of the cities and towns plunged into darkness due to unannounced load shedding by Hesco.

Our Thatta correspondent adds: The entire Thatta district was completely closed as soon as the news about the assassination of Benazir Bhutto spread over here.

All shops, business centres, pan cabins and petrol pumps were closed. All the election camps were also closed and streetlights switched off. Scores of people came out on roads and mourned the incident aggressively. They continued to weep and beat their heads and chests. ‘

In Punjab province, Rawalpindi suffered the most violence from all accounts: “Murree road, the main artery in Rawalpindi suffered the major wrath of the angry mob and PPP activists who burnt tyres, damaged public and private properties, and burnt vehicles.”

Folks, I’ve seen civil wars and riots first hand, and revolutions from not too far away, and this situation looks pretty bad to me.

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