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In wake of post-assassination tumult, Pakistanis venture out

January 01, 2008|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

LAHORE, PAKISTAN — After three days of national mourning, life in this grief- and violence-stricken land limped back toward normal Monday as residents crept gingerly out of their homes to buy supplies, greet their neighbors and reanimate cityscapes that had turned into virtual ghost towns following the assassination last week of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Police remained out in force to quell any further outbreaks of the anti-government rioting and looting that left about 50 people dead and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage in the immediate aftermath of Bhutto's death Thursday.

But car and foot traffic began coursing again through the streets of Pakistan's cities, carrying people to offices, shops, pharmacies and banks in advance of a New Year's shutdown today.

Even the southern port city of Karachi, Bhutto's hometown and scene of some of the worst violence, began slowly stirring back to life. Cars and motorcycles formed long lines at newly reopened gas stations while homemakers stocked up at vegetable stalls whose owners felt brave enough to resume business.

The air was still fraught with tension, however, and nerves were frayed. Random gunfire sent people scrambling for cover in parts of Karachi, past burned-out storefronts, shattered windows and abandoned vehicles that gave mute witness to the rage that had erupted in previous days.

And Pakistanis everywhere braced Monday for the possibility of further political chaos and public unrest amid expectations that the government would delay national elections scheduled to take place next week.

"It could take two to three weeks before everything is stabilized again," said Ali Hassan, 20, who ventured out with a college classmate for a bite to eat at a roadside restaurant here in the eastern city of Lahore. "Nobody can say."

"Especially Pakistani politics," added his friend, Tayyab Khan, who studies business administration.

"But inshallah [God willing], we will survive."

Investors were less sanguine, sending the benchmark Karachi stock exchange plummeting Monday nearly 5% on its first day of trading since the assassination of the woman many Pakistanis had hoped might put their nation back on a more democratic path. The rupee fell to its lowest rate in years against the dollar.

Less rarefied economic challenges loom for ordinary Pakistanis, who have already endured a difficult year of political turmoil and rising prices. With transport and commerce forced to a standstill during the rioting and the period of national mourning, shortages and price-gouging were reported for such necessities as fuel, milk, flour, sugar, meat and medicine.

"I haven't gone to my job in the last four days, and today I don't have money to buy food for my family," said 45-year-old Mohammed Bashir, a mason and father of five in the town of Daska, outside Lahore.

Abdul Sami Khan, the chairman of the Pakistan Petroleum Dealers Assn., said Monday that his industry had lost more than $8 million over the preceding three days. Half of that was incurred in Karachi, where nearly 10% of the city's 400 gas stations were destroyed or damaged.

Officials estimated that the country's railway system suffered $200 million in damage from rioters who burned carriages and knocked out signaling equipment.

Coupled with losses in manufacturing and exports, the setbacks represent a major blow to the Pakistani economy, which had been enjoying solid, if unevenly distributed, growth.

Getting the nation to recover economically as well as psychologically from Bhutto's assassination, an event that stunned even the most jaded and cynical of Pakistanis, poses an enormous challenge to President Pervez Musharraf's government. Musharraf, whom the U.S. considers a crucial ally in the battle against Islamic terrorism, is already deeply unpopular for having declared a six-week state of emergency that ended Dec. 15.

Many Pakistanis believe that Musharraf either connived in the shooting and suicide bombing attack that killed his biggest political rival or indirectly allowed it to happen by failing to provide adequate security for Bhutto's campaign. Hundreds of lawyers in the east-central city of Multan on Monday marched and chanted, "Musharraf, you killer!" Reuters news agency reported.

Bhutto's assassination has further inflamed ethnic and regional tensions in Pakistan that the Musharraf government has tried to tamp down. The residents of Bhutto's home province, Sindh, have long felt aggrieved at their political domination by people from Pakistan's most populous province, Punjab, who occupy senior positions not only in the government but also in the military, the nation's most powerful institution.

An outpouring of anti-federalist sentiment prompted Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, to emphasize the support of her Pakistan People's Party, or PPP, for a united Pakistan upon his appointment Sunday as the party's co-leader along with the couple's 19-year-old son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

Khan, the business administration student, said of the slain leader: "She was not just a Sindhi daughter. She was an all-Pakistan daughter."

Punjab as well as Sindh witnessed angry and violent reaction to Bhutto's assassination. In the Punjabi city of Gujranwala, a PPP stronghold, unease dogged the attempts by a few residents to pick up where they had left off before Thursday's fateful events, showing that it could be some time before normality is fully restored.

"People are so frightened that most of the businesses were still closed today," said Nasir Ismail Chaudhry, whose movie theater reopened to an audience at 1% of capacity.

"Some of the markets were open," Chaudhry said, "but in the afternoon there were rumors that a big procession was coming toward the markets, and believe me, all the shops closed again in five minutes."

Special correspondents Shahid Husain in Karachi and Aoun Sahi in Daska contributed to this report.

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