x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Tensions rise in Karachi as Pashtuns flee battle zones

Muhajir leaders warn of 'Talibanisation' as thousands of people displaced by Pakistan's campaign against militants settle in the city.

The body of a suspected Taliban is taken to a hospital in Karachi after a shoot-out yesterday between police and militants left five people dead.
The body of a suspected Taliban is taken to a hospital in Karachi after a shoot-out yesterday between police and militants left five people dead.

ISLAMABAD // An influx of Pashtuns from Pakistan's north-western war zones into the southern commercial centre of Karachi is stoking tensions between the port city's rival ethnic groups, raising fears that an anticipated fresh exodus could ignite more deadly street clashes. The next wave of people displaced by the army's new front in the war on the Taliban in South Waziristan may wind up in the heaving city of 16 million where the Wazirs, a Pashtun tribe, have strongholds, further aggravating tensions between ethnic Pashtuns and other groups. The tensions erupted into deadly riots connected to land disputes in early June and in April. Between 30 and 40 people were killed. Karachi political parties have already objected to the 10,000 families who reached the city in recent months, claiming that another influx of Waziri Pashtuns could fuel an urban "Talibanisation". Followers of the Sindh Nationalist Party tried to prevent people from crossing into their province last month after the military launched offensives in the Swat valley and Buner district. Critics say powerholders in Karachi are raising "Talibanisation" to protect their own turf. Turf wars and land-grabbing feuds are frequent in Karachi and competition for control of the streets and such organised criminal activities as extortion and abduction often fall along ethnic lines. The commercial capital - home to Pakistan's key stock exchange and banking industry - is a volatile melting pot of Pakistan's ethnic groups, drawing poor job-seeking migrants from Baluchistan, Punjab and North West Frontier provinces, as well as Bangladesh and Myanmar. In recent months Karachi's oldest and dominant group, the Muhajirs, Urdu-speakers who emigrated from India after the subcontinent's 1947 partition, have charged that their cosmopolitan city is under threat of "Talibanisation". Displaced people turning up in Karachi from heavily Taliban districts such as Swat and Buner have been accused of bringing militancy with them by the powerful political party representing Muhajirs, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) and other Sindhi parties. "We are very much concerned about the influx of IDPs [internally displaced people] because it's an established fact that a lot of terrorists from the Taliban are infiltrating different cities, including Karachi, in the shape of IDPs," said Haider Abbas Rizvi, a Karachi-based national legislator representing the MQM. "There are already more than 23,000 illegal seminaries and a huge number of tribals here who are with the Taliban, including Wazirs and Mehsuds. Taliban are being arrested here almost daily." Four million Pashtuns live in Karachi, according to the Awami National Party (ANP), which represents Pashtuns. Some 50,000 of them are of the Wazir and Mehsud tribes from South and North Waziristan tribal agencies on the Afghan border, Mr Rizvi said. The Wazir tribe have a firm stronghold in Karachi's heavy machinery and transport industries, controlling lorries, oil tankers, dumpers and long-distance coaches. Mr Rizvi said the Waziri businessmen have moved into shopping mall construction. A neighbourhood in the city's east called Waziristan Colony is packed with poor Wazirs in search of work. "Some Wazirs and Mehsuds have been living here for a very long time; they are people with good money in their hands. Most of them are established businessmen and transporters. The other Mehsuds and Wazirs who are coming from Waziristan are heavily involved in this Taliban connection," the legislator said. "Actually the Taliban are using Karachi as a source of money and they are involved in different crimes like extortion, heavy bank robberies, kidnapping for ransom, land grabbing, drug and weapons smuggling and it is big-time, very huge involvement." The MQM are notorious for their heavy muscle methods of control throughout Karachi. The accusations of organised crime levelled by Mr Rizvi against the Taliban are commonly levelled against the MQM. A leader of Karachi's Pashtun community, Shahi Syed, rejected the Talibanisation fears as baseless and countered that the MQM and other Sindhi nationalist parties are panicking at losing street power. "The very big problem is that the MQM don't want total street power falling to the Pashtuns," said Mr Syed, who heads the Sindh provincial branch of the ANP. "MQM are not happy; the Sindh nationalist parties are not happy. They are against Pashtuns coming here because they're scared it will dilute their control." Up to 10,000 Pashtun families from Buner and Swat had taken shelter in relatives' homes in Karachi, the capital of Sindh, the ANP leader said. "There is no Talibanisation problem here. The Taliban mentality can be found anywhere, but in Karachi all ethnic groups are living side by side and Talibanisation is not possible in this city. The Taliban have no graves here; they have no hills, and no supplies of weapons. "The Pashtuns who come to Karachi are in search of peace. They leave their areas because they don't want clashes and fighting." The United Nations has called the exodus from Swat "unprecedented" in its size, scale and fluidity since a concerted military offensive was launched against the Taliban there in May. People have shown a preference for taking shelter with relatives and friends, with 80 per cent of the two million now displaced estimated to be staying in private homes. The UN refugee agency said 71,000 displaced people have headed to Sindh and Punjab provinces. Few have taken advantage of tent camps in Karachi. "The facilities are poor; there is no water and the weather is very hot. They need cool areas because they come from the hills," Mr Syed said. Both leaders are expecting refugees from South Waziristan. A shoot-out erupted yesterday between police and militants in a western Karachi neighbourhood as police tried to raid their hideout. Five of the militants were shot dead, according to the city police chief, Waseem Ahmed. Mr Ahmed said the militants were loyal to Baitullah Mehsud, the target of the next chapter of the military's anti-Taliban campaign. Jet fighters have already begun pounding Mr Mehsud's bases in South Waziristan while soldiers are securing main roads and sealing off his stronghold. "Most of the Taliban used to come here for their vacations. Many of them got arrested here as well," Mr Rizvi said. Karachi is at "boiling point," he warned. "We are sitting on a time bomb of ethno-sectarianism. If any violence takes place in Karachi it can easily be converted into ethnic violence or sectarian violence. "Meanwhile we need to secure Karachi from the Taliban because it is the centre of gravity in Pakistan. If Karachi goes, Pakistan goes." bcurran@thenational.ae