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COLUMN ONE : Karachi's Chaos May Be Costly : The woes of Pakistan's richest city, which is awash in murder and mayhem, may drive away what the country needs--foreign investment.

March 23, 1995|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KARACHI, Pakistan — The day two employees of the U.S. Consulate were ambushed and murdered, the Karachi Stock Exchange's KSE-100 index dropped 29 points, or 1.5%.

But the average rebounded the next day, after traders had time to reflect. The slaying of the Americans, they concluded, might not be all bad.

"Finally we may get some honest people here," said broker Yasin Lakhani, the exchange's immediate past president. "Finally, something may be done."

If a city can have a nervous breakdown, Karachi, one of the world's great metropolises and Pakistan's largest and wealthiest city, is surely in the throes of one.

While Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto faces many problems--from drug mafias to a rabid political opposition--Karachi's turmoil is the greatest and most urgent one.

"Come and invest in Pakistan; your investment is very safe," Lakhani joked. "Only your life is not safe."

The afternoon when the stockbroker spoke to a visitor in his cubbyhole office, police had just cleared the exchange because of a bomb threat, forcing clerks and brokers onto the street next to the gauzy awnings where bookies take illegal wagers on cricket games.

Take a taxi to the airport along Shahrah-e-Faisal, the road where the Americans were ambushed March 8 while riding in a consulate van, and the cabby may exceed 75 m.p.h. to avoid trigger-happy snipers.

Karachi's boiling stew of ethnic, political and sectarian tensions has even reached the newsroom of Dawn, the city's most famous newspaper.

There, staff members from Islam's minority Shiite sect joke--but is it really a joke?--about altering their names to sound like those of majority Sunnis, so it is less likely they will be prey for armed Sunni zealots.

This troubled seaside city of 10 million people has become the Indian subcontinent's most violent and dangerous, with no end in sight. A few snapshots:

* Armed robbers held up a computer trading company across from the Central Police Office and netted more than 500,000 rupees, or $16,000. The frantic victims summoned police. It took officers 45 minutes to cross the street.

* Murder and kidnaping have sown widespread fear: Prominent business people, a well-known journalist and an aide-de-camp to a senior army officer were among the more than 1,260 people slain since the beginning of 1994. No one feels safe. Mosques have been bombed and invaded by assassins packing AK-47s, and tradesmen have been murdered as they served customers in their modest curbside shops. Four paramilitary Pakistani Rangers recently were abducted, bound hand and foot, and shot in the head. Their corpses turned up on a garbage heap.

* Karachiites dismiss police as cowardly and more interested in bribes than in restoring order. In any event, police have been wholly ineffective at halting the violence. Nightly, 110 mobile units patrol the streets, "but they've never confiscated a single firearm," a high-ranking police official complained. Constables are scared and demoralized. "If we catch anyone, it's by chance," the official admitted. "We've become nothing more than a registration agency."

Karachi, Pakistan's only major port, accounts for about two-thirds of the country's trade and industry and almost half of its gross domestic product.

"The progress of Karachi is synonymous with the progress of the nation," said Nisar A. Memon, general manager in Pakistan for IBM. If so, some business people say, this city and the nation are in trouble.

At the Top Taste bakery, bakers are turning out 2,900 pounds of bread a day, 35% less than last year. Crime and the fear of crime have shut many shops and bazaars, eating into Top Taste's sales.

Frightened by the unrest, 15 migrant laborers who lived with their families on the bakery's fourth floor have gone back to their native Punjab.

"Business is over here; it's finished," manager Malik Asif lamented.

Last March, the 29-year-old businessman picked up his .32-caliber pistol and shot to death two of three burglars who broke into his home. In a polite but menacing letter, the survivor, who is now on trial, has threatened to come after Asif unless he is set free.

"The courts will probably never convict him, they're so corrupt," a police officer said.

According to police sources, prisoners on trial in Karachi have bribed guards so they could slip out of court and commit new crimes, secure in the knowledge that their trials gave them a cast-iron alibi.

Bhutto insisted on Tuesday that in Karachi's sprawling 500 square miles, "police are not overwhelmed." During a visit this month to the city beside the Arabian Sea where she was born 41 years ago, Bhutto noted that Karachi is not the only big city plagued by crime and violence.

"The city is a little bit like New York or Bombay, where there are areas of problems, but areas where there is also growth," Bhutto said.

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