Bhutto cornered by a city at war

TIM McGIRK

Karachi

A businessman in Karachi was explaining the difference between the "page- three" photospread in Pakistani and British tabloids. "In England, you have pretty girls showing their busts, am I not correct?" he said, drawing curves in the air. "But in Pakistani tabloids we have pictures of dead bodies, ones that have been shot up and tortured. It is a pity we don't have the girls instead.''

The businessman was looking at a page-three photo in a Karachi daily several days ago and happened to recognise the corpse, disfigured by bullet holes. "That was the bastard who snatched my car!" he exclaimed. On the radio the next morning the businessman heard that all of Karachi was to be shut down by a general strike to protest at the killing, by Pakistani security forces, of this "truth-lover''. "To me he was a car thief and probably a murderer - anything but a 'truth-lover'," he said. "But this is Karachi.''

The dead thief reportedly was an activist of the Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM), which represents more than 20 million descendants of Indian Muslims who left their country after the 1947 partition to join in the dream of an Islamic republic in Pakistan. It was a dream from which they were excluded. Even today, the Mohajirs are dismissed as unwanted foreigners by many of Pakistan's native Punjabis, Sindhis, Baluchis and Pathans.

The leader of the MQM is Altaf Hussain, 41, who lives in exile in Britain. His neighbours in Mill Hill, north London, might well identify Mr Hussain as a recluse, a burly, mustached figure in baggy salwar trousers, who rarely leaves his home. And yet, from this genteel suburb, Mr Hussain can flex his awesome power over Karachi's 12 million inhabitants.

With a single telephone call or fax, the benign-looking Mr Hussain can conjure up a strike that will close down Karachi's port, and every cotton mill, corner shop and watermelon seller in the city. He can stop its auto-rickshaws and buses.

And his MQM militants, with their Kalashnikovs and their rocket-propelled grenades, have turned parts of Karachi into battle zones, where the paramilitary police dare to venture only in armoured convoys. His activists can joyride in the BMWs of Karachi's scared elite, and nobody will stop them. Mr Hussain has the power to do just about everything in Karachi - where more than 1,400 people have been killed this year alone - but he cannot impose peace.

Peace in the country's largest city depends on the Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto. After stalling for several months, hoping in vain that her security forces would crush the MQM's network of armed militants and thousands of Mohajir sympathisers, Ms Bhutto finally may have opted to reopen negotiations. This weekend, the government's final proposals are being passed to MQM negotiators. Ms Bhutto's move is long overdue; not only have the government's brutal tactics turned the Mohajirs, who are a majority, solidly behind the MQM, but Ms Bhutto's paramilitary police force in Karachi now has a reputation for being as deadly as the city's many armed gangs. Accusations of police torture, extortion and murder are mounting.

Until now, Ms Bhutto has given crossed signals to the MQM. Her promises of halting the "search and cordon" operations by police in predominately Mohajir neighbourhoods have been broken. Also, an MQM leader who was to fly to London and brief Mr Hussain on the exchange of letters between the local MQM chiefs and the government had his passport confiscated temporarily. An MQM spokesman, Shoaib Bukhari, said: "Benazir Bhutto is trying to buy time so that she can split the MQM and eliminate our leaders."

Before restarting talks the MQM are demanding Ms Bhutto agree to 18 demands, the most crucial of these being: that the government review the hundreds of allegedly bogus criminal cases lodged against their Mohajir leaders; that Karachi city elections be held (in which the MQM undoubtedly would trounce Ms Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples' Party), and that the 700 MQM activists in jail should be freed. "If the government's reply is positive, we will resume negotiations," said the Mohajirs' chief negotiator, Ajmal Dehlavi. By giving more rights to the Mohajirs, Ms Bhutto knows she could lose her power base in Sindh, her native province. Yet if she does not, Ms Bhutto could lose not just a province but a country.

The army is worried that the lawlessness in Karachi is spreading like a virus throughout Pakistan. One senior air force general publicly urged Ms Bhutto to seek a political end to the city's ethnic fighting, and in Pakistan, which has a history of coups, when a general speaks, the prime minister must listen.

News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
arts + entsJK Rowling to publish new story set in wizard's world for Halloween
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites those Star Wars rumours
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
people

Thought you'd seen it all after the Jeremy Paxman interview?

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch
tv

Greatest mystery about the hit BBC1 show is how it continues to be made at all, writes Grace Dent

Life and Style
tech

Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into conflicts
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'
film

"History is violent," says the US Army tank commander Don "Wardaddy" Collier

News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
football

Striker's four-month ban for biting an opponent expires on Friday

News
news
News
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
News
George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin married in Venice yesterday
peopleAmal and George Clooney 'planning third celebration in England'
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
Sport
Erik Lamela celebrates his goal
football

Argentinian scored 'rabona' wonder goal for Tottenham in Europa League – see it here

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Data Analyst/Planning and Performance – Surrey – Up to £35k

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

English Teacher

£24000 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The Job:Te...

French Teacher for new post starting November 2014

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Preston: the job ? We are looking for...

English Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Secondary English Teacher Requir...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker