The city descended into panic and fear on Tuesday shortly after TV channels aired news about the ‘arrest’ of Muttahida Qaumi Movement chief (MQM) Altaf Hussain in London, sparking gunfire and arson attacks in different localities where more than a dozen vehicles were torched, police and witnesses said.
Living in self-exile for over two decades, Mr Hussain was arrested after months of investigation by the British authorities into a money laundering case but the move attracted already feared strong reaction in Karachi, where the traffic system collapsed, stock market nosedived and 20-million people city turned deserted by sunset amid gunfire and arson attacks. While an official at the central fire office of the city confirmed that eight vehicles were torched in arson attacks, police counted 13 vehicles — eight buses, a truck, a CNG rickshaw and three Quinqui rickshaws — which were torched. The fire official told Dawn that the firefighting operation could not be carried out in the Korangi, Landhi and Water Pump areas after three fire tenders were attacked and damaged by armed men. “The situation that emerged in Karachi after Altaf Hussain’s arrest in London is regrettable,” said a spokesman for the PM House in a statement.
“There is definitely concern among the people because of this news Altaf Hussain’s arrest] but taking cover of this, any attempt to bring loss to people’s life and property would not be allowed. The Sindh government and law-enforcement agencies have been directed by the prime minister to ensure the protection of people’s lives and property.” The prime minister had also directed the Pakistan High Commission in London to provide consular service to the MQM chief as the government would offer every legal support to Mr Hussain, the statement added. According to the fire official, three Quinqui rickshaws were set on fire near Cafe Pyala in FB. Area. Two buses were torched in Korangi near Singer Chowrangi and one each near Water Pump, Gulberg and on Sharea Faisal. Besides, the police said, a truck was set ablaze on Abul Hasan Ispahani Road, three buses were put on fire near Ayesha Manzil, Shafiq Mor and Landhi, while a CNG rickshaw was also torched near Shafiq Mor.
A railway engine stationed at the Drigh Road railway station was also attacked by a charged mob. “They tried to set it on fire but timely intervention by police did not let it happen,” said an official at the Drigh Road railway police post, adding that the engine was slightly damaged in the attempt. “No arrest was made. We called the railways authorities at the Cantt Station and then the railway drove the engine to railways workshop. No case has been registered yet.” Almost the same situation was witnessed at the Civic Centre housing the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) headquarters, where charged men carrying sticks and stones ransacked its several offices. “It was around 3pm when more than 30 people, mostly youngsters, stormed the Civil Centre. Some of them were holding arms while others were carrying sticks and stones. They thrashed the staff, smashed the windows and ransacked furniture, asking us to close down the offices,” said a KMC official on the condition of anonymity.
Intense firing in different areas also left at least nine people wounded. An official at the police surgeon office said the Abbasi Shaheed Hospital received five people with bullet wounds while the Civil Hospital Karachi and Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre provided treatment to six others with gunshot wounds. The situation resulted in an abrupt closure of markets, offices and petrol pumps. The traffic system collapsed as people rushed to their homes bringing thousands of vehicles on roads within a short span of time. Hours-long traffic jams on almost all major roads tested the patience of the commuters who were already under immense stress due to the breakdown of law and order. In district south, I.I. Chundrigarh Road, M.R. Kayani Road, Sarwar Shaheed Road and Abdullah Haroon Road were clogged with thousands of vehicles. The traffic mess stretched up to parts of Saddar, South Napier Road, Old Outram Road, Hasrat Mohani Road, Wood Street, Shahrah-i-Kamal Ataturk, Burns Road, Belassis Street, Shahrah-i-Liaquat and Nicol Road as well. Similar scenes were witnessed on Sharea Faisal in district east and Shahrah-i-Pakistan in district central.
Traders and transporters who suspended their commercial activities on Tuesday were uncertain about resuming their business. They did not sound confident when asked about resuming the normal business on Wednesday and onwards. “If the situation continues with the same trend and the sit-in at Numaish, I don’t think the markets will be opened tomorrow [Wednesday],” said Ateeq Meer of the Karachi Tajir Ittehad. “The security situation is not encouraging for the traders so they would not take any risk. Similarly, there is no word from the MQM leadership and we expect them to announce their strategy that may help us design our own.” Similar thoughts were expressed by Irshad Bukhari of the Karachi Transporters Ittehad following the situation after the MQM chief arrest in London. He said it was ‘better to keep buses off the roads’. “Right now, nothing can be said about tomorrow. If the situation turns better we will be on the roads but that cannot be done at the cost of our assets and lives,” he said.