Ethnic tensions simmer in Pakistan after Bhutto killing

(AFP) - At Benazir Bhutto's tomb the women wail "Wake up, Sindhi!" -- but the country could add ethnic strife to its other woes if the people of Pakistan's southern province heed their call.

Sindh, the heartland of Bhutto's opposition party, saw the worst of a wave of rioting that erupted after her assassination on December 27, leaving nearly 60 people dead and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

Fuelling the anger of ethnic Sindhis -- and feeding conspiracy theories -- was the fact that she died in Punjab province, Pakistan's richest and most populous province and home to the military and intelligence establishment.

Tensions between the array of ethnic and religious groups that call this nuclear-armed Islamic republic home have boiled over several times in its troubled history, but have been largely quiet for the past half decade.

There are fears however that in the run-up to Pakistan's delayed elections on February 18 the resentment among Sindhis -- and attempts to capitalise on it by politicians in Punjab -- could stoke the fires of hatred again.

"Benazir Bhutto was the only leader who could unite the four provinces. Now there are chances of a civil war," said Nazir Ahmad Arijo, a teacher paying his respects at the Bhutto family mausoleum in the village of Ghari Khuda Baksh.

"The evil forces are trying their level best to split Sindhis and Punjabis and give this tragedy an ethnic edge. They want to divide and rule, that is why they killed our leader," the 32-year-old added.

Here when people talk of "the Punjab" it is often synonymous with the powerful army, dominated by Pakistanis from the central province.

It also expresses decades-old resentment against its economic and political clout, stemming from when the country's capital was moved from Karachi, the biggest city in both the province and the country, to Islamabad in the 1960s.

In Sindh the fury that saw hundreds of shops, banks and railway stations destroyed by mobs after Bhutto died has eased, and many now are keen to downplay initial anger that saw some rioters chanting anti-Punjabi slogans.

"Many Punjabis were murdered with Mohtarma (honorific term for Bhutto). We don't feel anger," said fellow mourner Ishtiaq Ahmed, 20, referring to most of the 22 other people who died in the suicide and gun attack that killed her.

As hundreds gathered at the tomb, throwing rose petals and chanting slogans in support of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, others said however that they now feared for the unity of the country of 160 million people.

Saeed Ahmed Mangi, 22, said that not only Sindhis and Punjabis but also Pashtuns, mainly from from North West Frontier Province and Baluchis from Baluchistan "all liked her because she was the chain of the nations."

Her popular appeal across the provinces could encourage the PPP's political rivals to play the ethnic card to capitalise on underlying divisions, analysts said.

With Musharraf loyalists already bringing up the issue ahead of the elections, analyst Hasan Askari said they would continue to use it to try to counter support for the PPP in Punjab.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Q, which backs Musharraf, "plans to aggressively pursue the election campaign and play up the regional ethnic dimension to neutralise the PPP's support in the Punjab," he said.

Reports during the riots said that Punjabi businesses and homes were targeted by mobs in Sindh, but people from the province dismissed them.

"The reports of anger against Punjabis is propaganda by the Q-League, the evil forces -- you may call it the Punjabi establishment," mourner Arijo said.

Nationalist parties in Sindh also sought to play down the divisions, but at the same time they gave dire warnings about the future.

"We all feel that after Benazir Bhutto's murder, Pakistan may go towards disintegration," said Sabiha Arshad, local president of the nationalist Khaksar Tehreek Movement.

"But the Sindhi population is not of the view that we have to disintegrate from the country. Sindh is praying: 'May God save Pakistan'," she said over tea and cakes at her home in Larkana, Bhutto's ancestral town.

Arshad, who is also a medical doctor, said that there were close trade and cultural links between the two ethnic groups, ties that were bolstered by intermarriage.

She saved her blame for unspecified "foreign forces" allegedly meddling in Pakistan's affairs, saying they would "try to make it (ethnicity) a burning issue to make it dangerous."

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