KARACHI -- Rival ethnic groups fought gun battles in this hub of economic growth yesterday , an ominous turn in a political crisis that started with the ouster of Pakistan's top judge. The death toll from a weekend of fighting rose to 41.
Funeral processions were accompanied by gunfights between ethnic Pashtuns and Urdu-speaking supporters of a pro government party. Gunmen fired on ambulances, killing at least one driver, and the bullet-ridden bodies of some victims were found tied and blindfolded.
The fighting in Karachi has marked a serious escalation in a crisis that began when the president, General Pervez Musharraf, suspended the independent-minded Supreme Court chief on March 9. It has raised the specter of a return to ethnic bloodshed in a port city of 15 million people that has been the center of Pakistan's fast-growing economy.
The government said it deployed 15,000 security forces to Karachi, but there was no sign that they intervened to stop the violence. Opposition parties contended Musharraf and his supporters in the Mutahida Qaumi Movement, or MQM, started the violence.
The Karachi-based MQM party draws its main support from the Mohajirs -- Muslims who fled India after the partition of the subcontinent at independence from Britain in 1947. The party emerged in the 1980s when Mohajir resentment of Pashtun control of businesses and public transport boiled over into violence that killed hundreds.
Musharraf, a US ally who took power in a 1999 coup, is himself a Mohajir, though he does not belong to the MQM.
Security forces failed to restore order despite the deployment of armored personnel carriers and pickup trucks topped with machine guns.
In a northern district, firefighters battled flames spreading through a row of Pashtun-owned shops after a funeral procession for an MQM activist killed the day before passed through.
Gunmen traded fire across a road dividing a Pashtun-dominated residential area from a mainly Urdu-speaking quarter in western Karachi. Most of the victims of two days of violence appeared to be Pashtun.