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Bad times return to Karachi

Renewed violence in this Pakistani port city is threatening its status as a safe haven from troubles further north.

A vehicle burns after clashes in the southern city of Karachi Apr. 29, 2009, during a week in which ethnic violence killed at least 18 people and wounded dozens of others, according to officials. (Stringer/Reuters)

KARACHI, Pakistan (Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting) — Despite Karachi’s decades-old reputation as Pakistan’s most violent city, over the last year this urban economic hub has remained a haven from the bombings and violence reverberating through the rest of the country. But a flaring of ethnic clashes in recent weeks, exacerbated by a the arrival of thousands of refugees from the violence in northern Pakistan, has many worried that instability has returned to the streets of this massive port city on the shores of the Arabian Sea.

Karachi is a migrant city, home to more than 14 million people, drawn from all corners of Pakistan by the promise of economic opportunity.

It is members of two of these groups, Pashtuns from the north and Urdu-speaking Mohajirs — descendants of immigrants from India during partition — that have been engaging in violent skirmishes throughout the city in past weeks.

“We believe that military operations in northern areas are causing the Taliban to now divert attention to Karachi,” says Haider Abbas Rizvi, of MQM (Muttahida Qaumi Movement), a powerful political party associated with the city’s Mohajirs. “We believe that it is Taliban militants in these [Pashtun] areas encouraging Talibanization in Karachi and creating the violence.”

Reports say that the recent fighting sparked after an unidentified man shot three members of the MQM.

Karachi gained its reputation for unrest due to similar ethnic violence in the 1980s and 1990s, but renewed clashes have taken on ominous contemporary political undertones as Pashtun communities are suspected of harboring militants in their midst.

Reports of gun battles, arsons and the deaths of dozens of people (mostly Pashtuns) in the last week are keeping schools closed, traffic thin, heavily armed rangers patrolling the city and Karachites tense, especially in light of a planned general strike called by Pashtun leadership and scheduled for May 12.

"It's fear basically, elements of the political establishment in Karachi are frightening the population with threats of Talibanization," says Amir Hamza Marwat, member of the Pashtun Fikri Jirga, a Karachi-based organization concerned with the issue of refugees in the city. "They say every Pashtun in the city is a problem, that every Pashtun is a Taliban."

Mohammad Sher Ali Khan, a recent refugee from violence in Matta in the Swat Valley, an area now controlled by the Pakistani Taliban, says he and his family should be seen as victims of political violence and not as its perpetrators.