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Rally in Pakistan descends into a battle, killing dozens

Suspension of top judge fuels worst protests in years

An officer patrolled near a gun battle site yesterday in Karachi, Pakistan. Protests over President Pervez Musharraf's suspension of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry may be the most serious challenge to Musharraf's authority since 1999. (Shakil Adil/associated press)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Men armed with assault rifles battled most of the day yesterday in a clash between progovernment and opposition forces that raged through residential neighborhoods in Karachi, killing at least 28 people and injuring more than 100 others.

In a Karachi neighborhood close to the international airport, smoke billowed from burning barricades, panicky motorists abandoned their vehicles, and residents of high-rise apartment buildings rushed for cover in inner rooms as the chaotic fighting continued for hours.

Hospital officials said today that the death toll from the violence had risen to 36, the Associated Press reported.

The strife in the volatile port city of 15 million people, which has a long history of political violence, was the worst yet during a crisis that erupted two months ago when the president, General Pervez Musharraf, suspended the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Backers of Musharraf appeared to be the driving force behind the violence in Karachi, officials said.

Pakistan is an important American ally in the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, both of which have been using the wild frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan as a base for planning new attacks against Western targets, including the NATO-led force in Afghanistan.

Musharraf, speaking at a rally in the capital, Islamabad, appealed for calm yesterday, but stopped short of declaring martial law in Karachi, the country's largest city.

"If you are unhappy about what has happened . . . halt these protests," the president, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1999, told nearly 50,000 supporters in the capital. "There is no need for an emergency -- the people are with me."

The political confrontation began March 9, when Musharraf suspended the country's most senior jurist, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, accusing him of misconduct and nepotism. Chaudhry has denied wrongdoing.

Many supporters of the judge believe the president was seeking to push aside the chief justice to preclude a challenge to the validity of elections to be held later this year.

A judicial panel is examining Chaudhry's suspension, but it could take months to reach a conclusion.

The fighting between pro- and anti government forces broke out just before Chaudhry was to address a large gathering of lawyers, who have rallied to his cause in nationwide gatherings. But the attacks trapped Chaudhry at the Karachi airport and he abandoned his plans to attend the rally.

At the rally in the capital of Sindh Province, Chaudhry had been expected to call for his reinstatement, and to urge Musharraf to either step down or give up his military role -- a stance that his backers believe was the reason he was suspended from his post.

Opposition parties said the violence was orchestrated by the progovernment Mutahida Qami Movement, or MQM, which controls the municipality.

Leaders of the opposition, who had planned to greet Chaudhry at the airport, said police stood idly by as they were beaten and intimidated at the airport, and during violence that subsequently spilled over into large areas of the sprawling city. A private television network came under attack as well, but stayed on the air as rioters torched vehicles outside.

Many roads, including the one from the airport, were blocked by trucks, buses, and shipping containers overnight in an apparent bid to disrupt Chaudhry's rally.

In advance of the competing demonstrations, government forces also arrested hundreds of opposition activists in recent days. More than 15,000 security officers were deployed yesterday.

In Pakistan, a presidential vote and parliamentary elections are to take place later this year. Opponents of Musharraf have accused him of engineering the parliamentary elections in a way that will ensure his continuing grip on power.

The current crisis is the most serious of Musharraf's tenure.

The violence threatened to put a damper on the Pakistani leader's recent reported overtures to former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, now in exile. News reports have said Bhutto is willing to give Musharraf political support in exchange for some undefined role in government and the dropping of corruption charges against her.

Backers of Bhutto's People's Party were among those clashing with progovernment supporters in Karachi. The fighting continued after night had fallen.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch yesterday condemned the unrest and called on the government to take stronger steps to protect civilians.

"The sequence of events leading up to this violence . . . indicates that the government, acting through its coalition partners, has deliberately sought to foment violence in Karachi," said Ali Dayan Hasan, a researcher for the group.

In an afternoon speech by phone to a rally of thousands of his supporters in a Karachi square, Mutahida Qami Movement leader Altaf Hussain -- who lives in exile in London -- indirectly blamed Chaudhry for the violence, saying he should have heeded warnings from provincial officials to stay away. Hussain urged the crowd to "control your emotions and demonstrate peace, as we are peace-loving people."

In the 1990s, scores of MQM activists were arrested for allegedly kidnapping dozens of their rivals and attacking security forces. Party activists are still heavily armed, but critics say they act with impunity as part of Musharraf's government.

The president, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1999 and is still army chief, is expected to ask lawmakers to grant him another term as president this fall. Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.