KARACHI, Pakistan — Warring ethnic gangs have turned Karachi, Pakistan's largest city and the country's commercial capital, into a battle zone with death squads unleashing gruesome torture on ordinary citizens at a rate that far outstrips the much better publicized violence attributed to al Qaida-linked extremists.
More than 1,000 people have been killed here this year, as many as half of those in July and August in a murderous frenzy that has grown worse in the last 10 days.
Across the city, corpses turn up dumped in sacks, the marks on the bodies inside a testimony to the agonizing death they have endured. Notes attached to some corpses read, "Do you want war or peace?"
The victims can be anyone from a rival ethnic group, making the killing horrifyingly random. In August, gangs took to hijacking buses, checking the identities of male passengers and taking away those from other racial groups. They would later be found in sacks.
Muhammad Kashif, a 30-year-old ambulance driver with Edhi, a charity that runs most of the ambulance service for the city, said the bodies he picks up from gutters and alleyways are blindfolded with their hands and feet tied.
"Some have their heads severed. Some have the heads but the ears, noses, tongues have been cut out. Eyeballs are sticking out. Arms are broken, legs are broken," said Kashif, who's based at Karachi's Civil Hospital.
"The victims are just people who were going to work, not gang members," he said. "For ordinary people, there's no safety."
Edhi alone collected 221 bodies off the streets from gang-related violence in July. It had collected 125 more in the first 19 days of August.
Adding to the terror, the gangs have taken to filming their torture sessions on cell phones, which are sent from phone to phone and uploaded onto YouTube. Videos seen by McClatchy show the henchmen using large knives to slice off parts of faces as if they were animal carcasses.
"The bodies we're receiving have limbs cut off, some are decapitated," said Dr. Lala Mubarak, a pathologist at Civil Hospital. "No one in their right senses would do this. This is the work of butchers."
Police privately admit to being helpless bystanders, unable and unwilling to intervene in a fight that's political, with three mainstream parties representing different ethnic groups and their gangs. This week the provincial government announced a police operation against the gangs, but so far it has yielded only two dozen arrests. Police officers weren't able to enter some of the most violent neighborhoods.
The violence worries U.S. officials, who fear the violence in Karachi could cripple not just Pakistan's already weak economy but hamper getting supplies to U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The majority of supplies for the U.S.-led international coalition there pass through Karachi's port.
In recent days, business leaders, including the Karachi Chamber of Commerce, have called for the army to intervene to restore order. Some believe that if the military stepped in, though, it inevitably would lead to the toppling of the government, ending Pakistan's latest 3-year-old experiment with civilian government.
Karachi's ethnic mix has been exploited for years by politicians to provide a political base for themselves. The biggest player, by far, is the Muttahida Quami Movement, a political party drawing support from Mohajirs, a group that migrated here from India in 1947 when India and Pakistan were partitioned.
The MQM is pitted against the Pakistan Peoples Party of President Asif Zardari, which has a gang following of ethnic Baloch, originally from the neighboring province of Baluchistan, concentrated in Karachi's Lyari district, a place of narrow streets and ramshackle housing.
Also at war with the MQM is the Awami National Party, which draws support from Karachi's huge ethnic Pashtun population, the group that inhabits northwest Pakistan and southern Afghanistan.
The MQM, whose leadership lives in exile in London, enjoyed a virtual monopoly over the Karachi government during Pakistan's last period of military rule. But the elections held in 2008 brought the Pakistan Peoples Party and Awami National Party to power in a coalition. The MQM has since joined and left the coalition several times. Currently, it's out.
"The hands behind this violence want a civil war in this city," said Sharfuddin Memon, the adviser for law and order to the provincial government. "I don't think the violence is initiated by the parties, but they do get dragged into it."
Sometimes determining which ethnic group a body belongs to is guesswork.
An Edhi ambulance driver, Muhammad Ali, recalls one body he retrieved from the docks at Machar Colony. Stuffed in a sack, it was badly decomposed and had no head. The arms had been cut off and thrown into the sack. The legs were severed through the bone, just hanging up by a little remaining flesh. The groin area had been cut away completely.
"There was nothing to identify this man. But there were still sandals on his feet, which were in the style of Pashtuns. So I'm guessing he was a Pashtun," said Ali.
A senior security official in Karachi, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to reporters, said that the gang conflict was essentially a fight over extortion money, which they collect from the areas they control.
"The MQM doesn't want to share the cake," said the security official. "The others want their slice."
All three parties deny directing the violence or being involved in other criminality. The gangs take protection money from shops and even homes, often claiming the money is for charity. In recent days, several markets in Karachi have staged public protests against the extortion money, known as "bata."
It is the month of Ramadan, a time of piety for Muslims, but this has caused the violence to ignite further, as the gangs tussle over the forced charitable funds that they extract during this holy period.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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