ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A Pakistani party that has long dominated politics in the commercial hub of Karachi accused the powerful paramilitary Rangers on Friday of illegally murdering four party workers on Thursday.
Karachi, a metropolis of 20 million that hosts the stock exchange and central bank, is beset by armed violence, and many of its sprawling slums are no-go areas for outsiders.
Two years ago, the military, with help from police, paramilitary Rangers and intelligence agencies, unleashed a campaign against armed gangs and suspected militants in the city.
The operation, which escalated in March this year, is officially aimed at criminals and militants, but some say the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) is the real target. The Rangers deny this charge.
“They were arrested by Rangers a month ago,” senior MQM leader Farooq Sattar told a news conference, referring to four party workers killed on Thursday in what he called a "staged encounter" – a practice where, opponents say, authorities claim the victim is killed in a gunfight though he has been summarily executed.
Sattar said the party had given a list of 150 missing party workers to the prime minister and other senior officials.
"But no action has so far been taken on our demand and at least four of those 150 workers have now been extra-judicially killed.”
The military has ruled Pakistan for about half its history and retains power over foreign relations and security, even during civilian rule.
Public criticism of the army or its subsidiary organisations like Rangers or the ISI spy agency is largely taboo.
MQM’s latest accusation marks a low in deteriorating relations between the military and the MQM in Karachi whose residents fear a confrontation could spark violence.
In March, paramilitary forces raided the party's headquarters in Karachi, recovering weapons and arresting suspects wanted for several crimes, including the murder of a journalist.
In May, MQM’s leader Altaf Hussain, who lives in exile in London, accused the army of illegally detaining MQM workers. But this is the first time since the crackdown began in 2013 that the MQM has accused the army of killing its workers.
In a statement released on Thursday, a Rangers spokesman said the force had killed four "target killers” responsible for the murder of a lawyer in March.
In a statement on Friday, the paramilitary force rejected the MQM's allegations.
“MQM’s propaganda regarding extrajudicial killings of their workers is not only misleading but also in contrast to reality,” a statement said.
Law enforcement agencies have long accused the MQM of retaining power through mafia ties, accusations the party denies.
Writing by Mehreen Zahra-Malik; editing by Ralph Boulton