Political turmoil grips south Pakistan

Scrambling to contain a surge in violence, Pakistan's ruling party has invited the opposition to share power in a key southern province.

    Sectarian tensions are running high in Sindh's capital, Karachi

    The Pakistani Muslim League made the offer on Thursday

     in the key southern province of Sindh

    after a spate of attacks in the provincial capital Karachi 

    claimed more than 50 lives.

    Muslim League head Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain said the

    Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a six-party Islamic alliance,

    backed the proposal.

    But a spokesman for the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) said

    its leader Benazir Bhutto - forced to remain in exile by the

    threat of prosecution for corruption

    - had rejected it.

    "The military government has landed itself in a mess. The

    PPP will not lend its shoulder to bail them out," spokesman

    Farhat Allah Babar said.

    Nationwide strike

    After the rebuff from the PPP, the biggest party in Sindh,

    Hussain will be hoping the MMA can use its influence with Sunnis

    blamed for attacking minority Shias to persuade

    them to curb their activities.

    "A government of national consensus should be formed which should be able to restore peace in the province. We should have it with immediate effect"

    Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain,
    Pakistan Muslim League chief

    Hussain told reporters the deteriorating situation in Sindh

    required the past bitterness to be forgotten.

    "A government of national consensus should be formed which

    should be able to restore peace in the province. We should have

    it with immediate effect," he said.

    Karachi is Pakistan's main commercial centre and on Thursday

    stocks on the city's long-booming stock exchange took a rare

    dive of more than 3%.

    This was partly due to concerns about

    the MMA's call for a nationwide strike on Friday to protest against the

    killing of a senior Sunni Muslim cleric in Karachi.

    Broader campaign

    Analysts have said the government will have to act firmly

    and quickly to prevent more widespread violence between Sunnis,

    who make up about 70% of Pakistan's 97% Muslim

    majority population, and Shias, who make up about 20%.

    While the latest violence has smacked of decades-old

    sectarianism, analysts say it appears Sunnis activists have been

    using attacks on Shias as part of a broader campaign to

    undermine President Pervez Musharraf and his support for the

    US-led "war on terror".

    President Pervez Musharraf has accused al-Qaida of being behind previous

    attacks, including two attempts on his life in December.

    MMA leader Fazlur Rahman (C) is
    set to share power in Sindh 

    A senior police investigator, Gul Hasan Sammo, said the bomber

    who carried out the latest attack in Karachi,

    which killed at least 21 Shia Muslims at a mosque on

    Monday, came from the outlawed Sunni group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

    Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is perhaps the most feared of Pakistan's

    underground groups and allegedly has links to Usama bin Ladin's

    al-Qaida network.

    However, no group has claimed responsibility for the bombing.

    Curricula dispute


    Pakistani authorities imposed a

    curfew on the northern city of Gilgit on Thursday to quell anger among

    Shia Muslims over school curricula.

    Local Shias staged a protest rally in defiance of the curfew and p

    olice opened fire when the protesters attacked a police training

    centre and the state-run radio station.

    Protesters tried to set ablaze a vehicle belonging to the radio

    station, residents said.

    Dozens of people were arrested for violating the curfew,

    including eight Shia leaders, the administration said.

    Shias are

    angry that some schools only teach methods of prayer followed by the

    rival Sunni majority.

    At least three people were injured in an exchange of gunfire in

    the city's Khomer neighbourhood, residents said.

    SOURCE: Reuters


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