KARACHI // Gunmen killed at least 29 people in Karachi as tension rose during voting in a by-election yesterday to replace a provincial assembly member murdered in August.
Police said they were investigating the weekend shootings, but many so-called "target killings" in Pakistan's largest city have been linked to gangs controlled by the city's main political parties.
The latest killings are being viewed as part of the wider battle for control of Karachi between the city's largest political parties, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) and the Awami National Party (ANP).
"Elections become a particularly bloody moment," Cyril Almeida, a newspaper columnist based in Islamabad, said. "It's about controlling the machinery of the state and about ensuring rivals don't encroach on space."
The parties generally represent different ethnic groups that make up a large chunk of the city's population.
The MQM claims to represent the Urdu-speaking descendants of those who came to Karachi from India soon after Partition. It presents itself as secular and likes to speak out against the so-called Talibanisation of the city, a jab at the ANP, which represents ethnic Pashtuns from the Taliban heartland in the north-west.
The ANP is still relatively weak, but the MQM takes an iron-fisted approach to any potential competitors, Mr Almeida said. "The MQM and ANP have different constituencies and their respective supporters are not competing for the same jobs and resources. This kind of brinksmanship and violence is a sign of political immaturity on all sides."
Raza Haider, the member of the provincial assembly who was shot and killed in August, was a senior member of the MQM. In the wake of the shooting, the MQM accused the ANP of supporting Islamist militants suspected of being behind the murder - an allegation denied by the ANP.
Both parties were competing for Haider's vacant seat, but the ANP announced on Saturday that it would boycott the election because the MQM would rig the vote. The shootings began about the time the ANP made its announcement.
"The killings in Karachi today appear to be the ANP's attempt to muddy the waters further - even though they stood no chance. It's a safe MQM seat, they have upped the ante," Mr Almeida said yesterday. He said rising tensions could affect the national government in Islamabad, where the MQM and ANP are in coalition with the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party.
What happens in Karachi "can have an impact on the national scene and could imperil the federal government in Islamabad if one party threatens to withdraw", he said.
At least 29 people have been killed in Karachi since Saturday evening, said Zulfiqar Mirza, the home minister of Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital. He called on party leaders to "help us turn Karachi back into the city of light and peace."
The dead include members of a broad range of ethnic groups in the city, he said. Haider Abbas Rizvi, a senior MQM leader and member of Parliament, accused the ANP of being behind the shootings.
"Nineteen of our workers and supporters have been killed so far," he said. A senior ANP member, Amin Khattak, denied the accusation.
"We are not involved in killings, and I think that this blame game should be stopped," he said.
The killings were reminiscent of the violence in the days after Haider's murder, in which at least 45 people died. Police have arrested at least 60 people in connection with the most recent shootings, Mr Mirza said.
But few killers in such cases have ever been brought to justice, and motives for the attacks have not been revealed.
The rising tension between the MQM and the ANP represents a serious danger to stability in Karachi, a city of some 16 million people and Pakistan's commercial hub.
Pashtuns have been arriving in the city in greater numbers in recent years, fleeing Pakistan army offensives against the Taliban.
An estimated four million Pashtuns are now in Karachi and many live in sprawling slums on the outskirts that are "no-go" areas for authorities.
Violence has surged in Karachi this year with hundreds of people murdered in target killings.
* With additional reporting by The Associated Press