Islamabad : Parts of Pakistan were in danger of spinning out of control Friday as angry mobs continued attacks on government buildings and private property following the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto the previous day.
The worst violence was occurring in the southern province of Sindh, Bhutto’s political stronghold, where at least 20 people, including a policeman, have been killed since Thursday night following her assassination hours earlier in the city of Rawalpindi.
Ignoring appeals for calm by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf following Bhutto’s slaying by a gunman, rioters armed with sticks and even firearms torched hundreds of vehicles and were roaming deserted streets across the province, according to local officials and Pakistan television reports.
“These people are uncontrollable. They are destroying everything that comes their way,” said Din Mohammed, a local resident in Khirpur district, where six people were killed in violence Thursday night.
“The entire city is closed and they are burning tyres everywhere on the streets.”
In Larkana district, violence erupted as tens of thousands of people were descending on Bhutto’s ancestral village of Garhi Khuda Baksh in hopes of attending her funeral, scheduled at 2:30 p.m. Friday.
Security forces “blocked roads leading to the village, and angry people (responded by) burning cars, motorbikes, buildings and chanting anti-government slogans”, according to a DPA reporter on the scene.
Paramilitary troops, acting under shoot-at-sight orders, were patrolling streets in several cities of Sindh province, where seven more people died in unrest Friday.
“We have deployed 16,000 troops across the province,” Major Asad Ali, spokesman for the paramilitary troops, also known as the Rangers, told Aaj TV. “With this limited force, we are trying to reach the most-affected areas.”
More than 400 inmates in three prisons in Thatta district were set free by hundreds of protesters who attacked and set the facilities on fire.
In the provincial capital Karachi, however, the situation was calmer Friday morning after seven people, including a policeman, were killed in overnight violence in various parts of the port city.
Karachi is also where Bhutto survived a suicide bombing on her return home from exile two months ago that killed more than 140 people.
“The situation is much calmer today,” said city police chief Azhar Ali Farooqi. “The miscreants set four police checkpoints and more than 180 vehicles on fire, and the police have arrested 40 of them.”
All land routes linking Karachi with the rest of the country were blocked after Pakistan Railways officials suspended train service. Mobs had ransacked several railway stations and set a train on fire, and the rioters had already blocked roads in and out of the city.
But several other cities and towns remained under the control of mobs, who looted dozens of banks and ATM machines, according to local media reports.
There were also reports of low-scale unrest in the North-West Frontier, Balochistan and Punjab provinces.
A general strike was also being observed in cities across the country, with all business activity halted, and government offices and schools closed.