KARACHI -- Thousands of Sunni Muslims rampaged through this volatile southern Pakistani city yesterday, ransacking property and stoning vehicles after unidentified gunmen assassinated an influential pro-Taliban cleric.
Enraged by the drive-by shooting of Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai, rioters set fire to banks, shops, a police station, and a KFC fast-food restaurant, and traded gunfire with security forces, leaving more than a dozen people injured. Tens of thousands of mourners later gathered for the evening funeral, where police fired warning shots above the crowd.
Shamzai, in his 70s, had met Osama bin Laden and was a strong supporter of Afghanistan's former Taliban regime. The soft-spoken cleric was shot dead as he traveled in a pickup to his Sunni Muslim religious school in the east of the city.
Witnesses told police that as many as six gunmen riding in two cars and on a motorcycle opened fire on Shamzai's vehicle, wounding one of his sons, a nephew, his driver, and a police bodyguard.
No one claimed responsibility for the shooting, which Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali condemned as a ''dastardly act of terrorism."
In the riots, Sunni Muslim students, some shouting slogans against rival Shi'ite Muslims, took to the streets. Paramilitary forces were deployed to protect Shi'ite mosques, amid fears of sectarian violence.
The attack occurred three weeks after a suicide bomber killed 22 worshipers at a Shi'ite mosque in Karachi and days after two car bombings near the US Consul's residence that killed one person and injured 40.
Since late 2001, when Pakistan threw its support behind the US-led war on terror, Karachi has been wracked by terrorist attacks, some targeting foreigners, others apparently motivated by sectarian differences.
Nearly 80 percent of the people in this Islamic country are Sunnis and live peacefully with minority Shi'ites, but radical groups on both sides often launch deadly attacks against members of the other sect.
After Shamzai's shooting, Sunnis -- mostly students with beards, traditional white caps, and tunics -- set fires and pelted passing vehicles with stones. Hundreds raided a police station near Shamzai's school, Jamia Islamia Binor Town, beating up three policemen and setting fire to vehicles.
Police said rioters set fire to four banks and Quaid-e-Azam Academy, an institute that conducts research on Pakistan's founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. They ransacked shops, a KFC restaurant, a cinema, and a gas station, and seized two ambulances.
In the worst clashes, about 2,000 rioters attacked a building housing a bank and a newspaper. Police in armored cars fired guns in the air and tear gas, and from within the crowd, automatic gunfire crackled back.
Shaukat Imran, a police official, three police officers, and four protesters were wounded in the firing, but none seriously. At least six other police officers were hurt in the stone-throwing.
Afad Malik, Karachi's police chief, said 30 people were arrested for creating a disturbance.
By evening, some 15,000 police and rangers were deployed as tens of thousands of mourners gathered near the seminary for the 6-mile-long funeral procession. Security forces sparked more anger when they fired warning shots over the mourners' heads to disperse the crowd after some started throwing stones. The procession then took an alternative route.
More than 10,000 people study at branches of Shamzai's seminary in Karachi. The cleric was a fervent critic of President General Pervez Musharraf's support of the US-led war on terrorism and strongly opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He rose to prominence after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks when he led a delegation of clerics from Pakistan to Afghanistan, hoping to prevent the US-led coalition's assault on the Taliban for hosting Al Qaeda.
Shamzai had met with bin Laden sometime before the Sept. 11 attacks.