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41 dead in Pakistan political violence

Funerals were accompanied by gunfights between two ethnic groups.

KARACHI, Pakistan - 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 at least 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-riddled bodies of some victims were found tied and blindfolded.

The fighting in Karachi has marked a serious escalation in a crisis that began when President 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 personnel to Karachi, but there was no sign they intervened to stop the violence. Opposition parties blamed Musharraf and his supporters in the Mutahida Qaumi Movement party of starting 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 U.S. ally who took power in a 1999 coup, is a Mohajir, though he does not belong to the MQM.

Security forces failed to restore order in Karachi 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 had passed.

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, including, police and a doctor said, the bodies of two men found tied and blindfolded yesterday in an MQM stronghold.

Police also said they found the bullet-riddled body of an MQM activist.

Hospital officials said the death toll mounted to 41 with about 150 wounded.

Anwar Kazmi, an official for the Edhi charitable foundation, said its ambulance crews had been shot at six times over the weekend. In one incident, gunmen killed a driver and two patients at a roadblock.

The trouble in Karachi started when opposition leaders and the MQM called rival demonstrations Saturday to coincide with a visit by suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.

Musharraf accused Chaudhry of abusing his position, but opposition leaders said he wanted to sideline the judge before possible legal challenges to his pursuit of another eight-year term in a parliamentary vote this fall.