KARACHI, Pakistan – Fresh political violence gripped Pakistan's commercial capital, Karachi, on Thursday, leaving 11 people dead in fighting sparked by a senior ruling party leader's criticism of the city's dominant political group.
Angry mobs went on a rampage and burned vehicles after Zulfiqar Mirza, a minister in the Sindh provincial assembly and senior member of President Asif Ali Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP), urged the people of Karachi and Hyderabad, the second-largest city of Sindh, to "rise and rid themselves" of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM).
"I appeal to the people of Karachi especially, and of Hyderabad, to stand up for yourselves, for Pakistan, for Karachi and for your innocent children, and rid yourselves of these cursed ones," he said while talking to reporters, referring to senior MQM leaders.
In comments broadcast repeatedly by local television stations, he also criticized Mohajirs – the descendents of Urdu-speakers who migrated from India – for being ungrateful for the home they were given after the creation of Pakistan in 1947.
On Thursday, many roads were closed after protesters burned tires and torched vehicles following heavy firing all night in many areas.
"Since last night, 11 people have been killed and 13 vehicles burned," Karachi police chief Saud Mirza told Reuters.
At least one person was killed in Hyderabad, police said.
Many flights from Karachi were delayed because crew members struggled to get to the airport through the violence.
Karachi, home to more than 18 million people, has a long history of ethnic, religious and sectarian violence.
It was a major target of Al-Qaeda-linked militants after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States, when Pakistan joined the US-led campaign against militancy.
The latest incidents come after a surge in ethnic and political violence in Karachi last week, which killed more than 100 people.
As the commercial hub, any upheaval in Karachi could disturb industrial activity and have serious consequences for the economy.
The country is struggling to control a rising Taliban insurgency in the northwest along the border with Afghanistan, while militant attacks in bigger cities are also on the rise.
The insurgency, perceptions of corruption and chronic power shortages have put off long-term investors, hurting the fragile economy which has been propped up by an US$11 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout program.
Leaders from the PPP sought to defuse the tension, saying Mirza's views were his own and did not reflect party policy, but that was not enough to contain the violence.
"I apologize to the Urdu-speaking people who were hurt by this statement," Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters in Islamabad on Thursday.
"I am speaking on behalf of our leadership, and our entire leadership has disowned it."
Wasay Jalil, a senior leader of the MQM, also condemned the violence.
"We are always for a peaceful protest and condemn any violence," he said. "There are always forces which try and take advantage of the situation and disrupt the peace of Karachi."
The country's main stock market was marginally lower in early trade, but trade was slow as most investors remained on the sidelines.