Karachi in shutdown mode over London arrest of MQM chief Altaf

Karachi, Pakistan's biggest city, was in shutdown mode for the second day yesterday, with shops and markets closed and people staying home for fear of violence following the arrest in London of Altaf Hussain, leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party.

Altaf is one of Pakistan's most feared men. Wanted in Pakistan in a murder case, he was arrested in northwest London where he has lived in self-imposed exile since the early 1990s.

Karachi, the sprawling port city of 18 million, is virtually controlled by the MQM. Reports of sporadic violence emerged as soon as news of his arrest reached the city.

About 2,000 of his supporters rallied in the central district in support of Hussain on Wednesday. Elsewhere the city was virtually in locked down, with markets and petrol stations closed and its usually chaotic and bustling streets empty of traffic.

"The people of Karachi and other big and small cities of Sindh (province) still see Altaf Hussain as their leader," Nasir Jamal, a senior MQM official, told Reuters.

"The thrust of this protest is the release of Altaf Hussain. We are here until we see positive indications from London."

The largely peaceful crowd sporadically burst into loud chants of slogans in support of Hussain. "Long live Altaf!" and "Even after death Altaf will continue to live!" shouted his supporters.

The ability of Hussain's supporters to shut down Pakistan's commercial hub for two days underscores his influence and many fear that riots might still erupt. But as of Wednesday evening no major acts of violence had been reported.

The cost of the shutdown will also weigh heavily on a city already beset by daily violence and feudal spats between its many ethnic and political groups.

A spokesman for London police said Hussain remained in custody where he is being questioned on suspicion of money laundering. "By this evening we will probably know if he's going to be charged or released," the spokesman said.

The MQM party's support base is millions of Muslim Urdu-speaking people whose families migrated to Karachi and nearby areas at the time of the 1947 partition of India.

Hussain, who believes history has proved the two-nation theory wrong, once declared, "The idea of Pakistan was dead at its inception, when the majority of Muslims chose to stay back after independence, a truism reiterated in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971."

Hussain fled to London in 1992 and obtained British citizenship a decade later. He continued to exert control over Karachi from his north London headquarters and remains one of Pakistan's most feared and divisive figures.

He is known for his fiery addresses to his supporters in Karachi though a loudspeaker connected to a telephone in his London home. His hold on Karachi is so strong that he is capable of shutting down entire neighborhoods.

But his arrest poses broader risks for the party, whose influence has already been diluted in recent years by the influx of other ethnic groups to Karachi including Taliban-linked Pashtun warlords.