Security forces in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, were yesterday battling to break a neighbourhood siege in which armed sectarian gangs have kept thousands of residents pinned down for 10 days without food, electricity and running water.
Using armoured vehicles to spearhead the assault, a force of over 1,000 members of the paramilitary Rangers yesterday attacked the slum area known as Orangi.
Among Orangi's 1 million poor labourers and their families are well-armed militants who belong to an ethnic organisation called the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM). The gunmen fought back with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, and dug trenches to keep the armoured cars from pursuing them into the area's maze of narrow lanes.
A Rangers spokesmen said yesterday that all but "a dozen hard-core fighters" were left in Orangi, and they expected to lift the siege by today.
Sectarian strife exploded in Orangi and other parts of Karachi when the Pathan and Baluchi ethnic communities lost their patience after many months of being caught in the crossfire between government forces and MQM gunmen.
The Mohajirs, who number over 5 million in Karachi, are the descendants of Indian Muslims who fled to Pakistan after Partition in 1947. They claim to have been denied equal rights and a political voice. An MQM official, Shoab Bukhari, blamed the security forces for stirring up ethnic tension between the Mohajirs and the other communities to isolate the MQM, insisting: "We have no grievances against the Pathans and the Baluchis."
The Rangers said they were forced into a major clash with the Mohajirs in the Orangi district to halt an alleged MQM raid on Baluchi neighbourhoods. Since January, over 800 people have been killed in Karachi's ethnic violence.
Once a thriving port and the country's economic hub, Karachi has been paralysed by strikes called in recent weeks by the Mohajirs, whose leader, Altaf Hussain, lives in exile in London. "Their gunmen make sure the shops are closed, and even barricade the roads outside the factories and textile mills to keep the workers from coming," said a businessman who preferred not to be identified.
To break the MQM's subterranean network of gangs, the Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, on Sunday outlawed the use of mobile telephones and pagers. Ms Bhutto has condemned some elements of the MQM as "devils" and "cowardly rats" and is seeking Mr Hussain's extradition on terrorism charges.
However, some Pakistani newspapers yesterday claimed that the Prime Minister and the MQM had agreed to open peace negotiations.
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