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Karachi's murderous Genie forced back inside his bottle

Tim McGirk on the strongman trying to stem a city's rising tide of clan violence
Karachi - All day, the men of a Karachi slum known as the "Lines" had been filing past an empty swimming pool and made to parade under a high glass booth which, in better times, had been used by judges in diving contests.

The men in the queue moved spasmodically, as if knotted by fear. Sitting inside the glass booth these days is a different kind of judge, one of life or death. They are police informers. With bandannas drawn over their faces, the informers casually nodded towards a man in the queue, then armed police would pull the suspect out for interrogation. In Karachi, arrested "terrorists" have a habit of dying in police custody.

A gun battle had broken out two days before in the Lines between two rival extortion gangs.This put Karachi's law officers in a tricky position. The city has many villains - some would put the corrupt police force near the top of the list - and these two Lines gangs happened to be the authorities' occasional allies against yet another band of gunmen, those of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM).

But with bullets flying everywhere, the authorities had no choice but to send in the Rangers, an elite paramilitary force. They didn't find much: four suspects out of the 2,000 men and boys made to march in the identity parade.

Hidden inside a rubbish bin in one house, the Rangers found a cache of AK-47 semi-automatics, a few pistols, 15 empty bottles of Four Aces whisky and a hideous monkey mask of rubber and fur. One of the Rangers couldn't resist trying on the monkey mask and grunting. It was a precious find. "That mask belongs to a terrorist called the Djin-baba - the Genie. He wears it when he's extorting money or goes out to murder someone."

The Rangers were sent into Karachi by Pakistan's Interior Minister, General Naseerullah Babar. In Karachi, he is widely hated and feared, yet respected for his bravery. Unlike other ministers who shun the violence-ridden city, Gen Babar darts around trouble spots with a single car of armed guards. The relatives of one MQM worker, Asif Zahedi, killed on 24 September, swore that when they tried to reclaim his body from the police station, they saw Gen Babar posing for a photograph with his swagger-stick in one hand and his foot on the chest of the corpse, like some big game hunter.

It proved untrue, but such is the general's reputation that stories like this gain currency. When I met Gen Babar over tea, I asked him why such infamous tales were told of him. He didn't seem surprised. "I have better things to do than go around to see every dead body in Karachi. That's barbaric."

In his late sixties, the general is an urbane frontiersman, a much-decorated war hero from Pakistan's wild north-west. "You might say that I have a certain tough character role to play," he says. "But when I travel around Karachi, I don't see the terror in people's eyes any more. The marriage halls are full of people and music. And the militants are on the run. They have to move every couple of hours, and sleep in the mosques. Let them think what they want of me. If I can bring peace to Karachi, that's my best reward."

The worst troublemakers in Karachi, according to Gen Babar, are the MQM. An urban guerrilla army of more than 1,400, it draws support from Karachi's majority community of Mohajirs, the descendants of Indian Muslim refugees who have been elbowed out of top government jobs, university posts and elected office by the native Sindhis, Baluchis, Punjabis, and Pathans. In the violent slums which ring Karachi "like volcanoes", as one social worker described them, the MQM grew from a protective gang for Mohajirs into an organisation more powerful in the city than even the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of the Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto. The MQM leader, Altaf Hussain, who is wanted on numerous murder and terrorism charges is living in exile in the United Kingdom.

"The top MQM leadership has either been caught or eliminated. They don't like to surrender, so most of them get killed in fire-fights," Gen Babar claimed. Nobody disputes his boast that he has helped to restore law in Karachi. So far this year, more than 1,400 people have died in Karachi's ethnic and sectarian strife, but the daily death toll has been falling. A stockbroker, Yasin Lakhani, said he overheard one trader telling another: "There were only three bodies found today, that means share prices are going up."

Gen Babar's tactics may have damaged the MQM, but in the process, he has unleashed other monsters: the security forces and a criminal element of Mohajirs known as the MQM (Haqiqi). One cotton mill owner, Farooq Sumar, has been in hiding after going public with proof that the Haqiqi had been extorting money from him. He calculates that extortion gangs such as Haqiqi rake off over pounds 1bn a year. "Every businessman and shopowner is forced to pay, and at least 30 per cent of this money is going to police officials and the government. We're turning Pakistan into Somalia," he claimed.

Another earner for police is to arrest people, charge them with terrorism or murder, and then demand bribes of anywhere between pounds 300 and pounds 2,000.