KARACHI (Reuters) - The Pakistani military on Friday lashed out at the leader of one of the country’s biggest political parties, in rare censure of a civilian politician for his sharp criticism of the army.
The dispute marks a low in deteriorating relations between the military and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which controls Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest and richest city.
Residents fear a confrontation could spark violence.
“Altaf Hussain’s speech on TV, containing remarks about the army and its leadership, was uncalled for and disgusting,” military spokesman Major General Asim Bajwa said on his Twitter feed, referring to the leader of the MQM.
“Such reference to army or its leadership as reaction to arrest of criminals, who may have links with any political party, won’t be tolerated,” he said, vowing to pursue the matter legally.
The military has ruled Pakistan for about half its history and retains power over foreign relations and security, even during civilian rule. But it rarely gets openly involved in day-to-day politics, preferring to be seen as above the fray.
The military has vowed to drive criminals out of the southern port city of 18 million people, scarred by violence unleashed by insurgents, drug lords and kidnappers.
The MQM, Pakistan’s fourth largest party, has long held sway over Karachi, which is home to the main stock market and central bank and generates half of government revenue.
Law enforcement agencies have accused the MQM of retaining power through mafia ties, accusations the party denies.
Political insiders say the military is determined to shatter the MQM’s grip on Karachi. A military operation against criminals is really directed at the MQM, the party says.
Hours before the spokesman’s comments, MQM leader Altaf Hussain accused the military of targeting his supporters, asking why it had not rooted out criminals and militant sympathizers from its own ranks.
“How many retired army men were caught in bank heists?” Hussain asked in a televised speech from London, where he has lived in self-exile since fleeing arrest in the 1990s.
Hussain was enraged by an accusation from a senior Karachi policemen earlier on Thursday, that his officers had captured two MQM workers acting as spies for Pakistan’s arch-enemy, India.
“I won’t call him pig, as a pig is better than him,” Hussain responded, as he urged his followers to prepare for a showdown.
“Get commando training, get training to use weapons and get ready for a fight.”
Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Robert Birsel and; Clarence Fernandez