Pakistan at Standstill as Discord and Unrest Grow
Sunday, December 30, 2007
KARACHI, Pakistan, Dec. 29 -- Nationwide rioting brought life in Pakistan to a standstill Saturday and forced government officials to consider delaying next month's elections, as discord spread over the killing of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
The death toll from the violence climbed above 40, with many people fearfully staying indoors while others ventured out to torch government buildings or battle with police firing tear gas.
The unrest turned streets in this normally frenetic city, Pakistan's largest, into empty expanses of asphalt. Dozens of burned-out cars and buses lay by the sides of the roads, evidence of nighttime mobs that roamed the city in defiance of soldiers and police.
Food shortages were reported in some areas of the country, and most gas stations and shops were closed. With a large percentage of the population idle and angry, there was concern Saturday that the violence could worsen.
"These are the sentiments of the people. This is their natural reaction," said Zahid Hussain, 30, a truck driver who had pulled over Thursday night in rural Sindh province, Bhutto's stronghold, and had not moved since for fear of attack.
Pakistanis are scheduled to go to the polls Jan. 8, but with the nation on edge, the election commission was expected to convene an emergency meeting Monday to decide whether to postpone the long-awaited vote. Rioters have targeted the commission's offices, and several have been burned to the ground.
The elections, which will determine who controls Parliament and shares power with President Pervez Musharraf, are seen both here and abroad as a test of Musharraf's willingness to move toward restoring democracy. In addition to the concerns about violence marring the vote, opposition groups have long said they believe that Musharraf and his allies plan to rig the balloting.
Bhutto had been campaigning for a third term as premier at a rally in the garrison city of Rawalpindi on Thursday when she was killed as her bulletproof sport-utility vehicle was about to leave. The attack -- gunshots and a suicide bombing -- was carried out in broad daylight before hundreds of witnesses. But the exact circumstances of her death remained a source of major controversy Saturday.
The government has blamed Islamic extremists and said Bhutto died because her head hit a lever of her vehicle's sunroof. Her supporters have blamed Musharraf's allies and say she was shot in a well-coordinated assassination.
On Saturday, while paying his respects to her family in its ancestral home, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif said the government should be held responsible for Bhutto's death.
Bhutto loyalists turned their attention Saturday to the question of who will succeed her as leader of her Pakistan People's Party. But many in the party concede that they are still distracted by the trauma of her death.
"Maybe the emotion won't last that long, but right now, I don't care about the People's Party. I don't care about Pakistan. The only thing I care about right now is that they have killed my sister," said Nadeem Qamar, a doctor and a party stalwart for decades.