KARACHI, Pakistan — The death toll from four days of violence sparked by a contentious local election in Pakistan's largest city rose to 52 on Wednesday when at least one person was shot and killed despite efforts to restore order.
Security forces patrolled the southern city of Karachi to prevent fresh violence and in many neighborhoods, businesses shut down while public transportation was scarce.
"The atmosphere of terror is everywhere," said local resident Mohammad Sadiq. "People are scared to come out of their houses."
Many of the slayings in Karachi – including the ones that started Saturday evening – have been linked to gangs allegedly controlled by political parties. This wave of violence coincided with Sunday's election to replace a provincial lawmaker killed in August.
Karachi, a port city of about 16 million, has a long history of political, ethnic and religious strife. But this year has been exceptionally bloody. The city has seen around 300 "targeted killings," mostly among the gangs, since June. That is roughly twice the number for all of 2009.
The spate of politically motivated attacks in Karachi comes as Pakistan conducts talks with the U.S. on the future of their shaky alliance against the Taliban and al-Qaida. U.S. officials in Washington on Wednesday are expected to discuss a long-term military and security assistance pact with a visiting Pakistani delegation.
Despite heavy security, crowds angry over the recent killings set fire to several fruit and vegetable stalls in Malir, a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city where five men were shot Wednesday. It was not immediately clear who fired the shots.
One of the five men was killed and four were wounded, said Seemin Jamali, a doctor at the largest public hospital in the city. She could not provide any details about the person killed.
Pakistani TV showed crowds roaming the streets of Malir as police on foot and in armored vehicles tried to control the crowd nonviolently.
Pakistani leaders place prime importance on keeping Karachi calm because it is the country's main economic hub. A major chunk of supplies for U.S. and NATO troops is shipped to the city before traveling overland from Pakistan into neighboring Afghanistan.
And al-Qaida and Taliban fighters are believed to frequent Karachi to rest and raise funds.
Sharmila Farooqi, a provincial government spokeswoman, said most of the killings in recent days were politically motivated, and some of the 55 suspects detained by police in connection with the violence were linked to political parties.
Gunmen opened fire in a scrapyard in a commercial market late Tuesday, killing 11 people, said Farooqi.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani vowed to punish the culprits in the violence. He said officials had not discussed whether to deploy army soldiers to the city. Whether to involve the powerful army is a question that routinely arises when violence spikes in Karachi.
"I think the civilian authorities will manage," Gilani said
The two parties most linked to violence in Karachi – the Muttahida Quami Movement and the Awami National Party – have their electoral bases in different ethnic groups that make up a large share of the city's population.
The MQM claims to represent the Urdu-speaking descendants of those people who came to Karachi from India soon after the birth of Pakistan in 1947. It is secular and likes to speak out against the so-called Talibanization of the city, a jab at the Awami National Party, which represents the ethnic Pashtuns from the Taliban heartland in the northwest.
Raza Haider, the member of the provincial assembly who was gunned down in August, was a senior member of the MQM. Both parties were competing for Haider's seat, but the ANP announced Saturday evening that it would boycott the election, saying the MQM would rig the vote. The MQM won the seat.
MQM lawmaker Haider Abbas Rizvi said the party had handed authorities a list of 150 alleged criminals it suspects in the attacks but that nothing had come of it. He not only blamed the ANP, but also faulted the Pakistan People's Party, which control's the provincial government.
ANP spokesman Amin Khattak said the MQM was to blame, noting that the killings began shortly after his party said it would boycott the election.
Associated Press Writers Riaz Khan in Peshawar and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.