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Police under attack in Pakistan's largest city

Thursday - 3/13/2014, 2:08pm  ET

In this Friday, Jan. 10, 2014 photo, Pakistani policemen march near the body of police officer Chaudhry Aslam, who was killed in a bomb attack claimed by the Pakistani Taliban, during his funeral procession in Karachi, Pakistan. 44 police officers were killed in the line of duty during the first two months of the year in Karachi, marking a particularly violent beginning of the year for police. This spike came after the police were already reeling from the killings of 166 officers last year _ roughly one every other day and a four-fold increase from just five years earlier. (AP Photo/Shakil Adil)

Associated Press

KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) -- From his home off a dirt road cluttered with trash in Pakistan's teeming city of Karachi, policeman Didar Ahmed's son shows the bloodstained jacket his father was wearing when gunmen cut him and three colleagues down in a hail of bullets last month.

Ahmed's brother Gulzar looks at the bullet-riddled garment with a blank stare. He recalled how days before his brother's death, they had talked about the rising dangers of police work as officers increasingly come under attack by criminal gangs and militants from the Pakistani Taliban.

"He was sitting here and told me: 'The situation in the city is deteriorating so if something happens to me, you take care of my kids and family,'" Gulzar said.

Ahmed was one of 44 police officers killed during the first two months of the year in Pakistan's largest city, a particularly violent start to the year for the police. The force was already reeling from 166 officers killed last year -- roughly one every other day and a four-fold increase from just five years earlier.

Being a police officer has never been especially easy in this sprawling metropolis on the southern coast, where the population has surged from roughly 10 million in 1998 to some 18 to 21 million today -- so much that an exact count has proven elusive to authorities.

But recent figures suggest the profession has become even more perilous -- in large part because the Pakistani Taliban and affiliated militant groups have gained a foothold here, police and analysts say. Police Chief Shahid Hayat says they are responsible for roughly 60 percent of the recent police killings.

Much of the focus on militancy in Pakistan since 9/11 terror attacks in the United States has been on the vast northwest tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, where the army is fighting militants. But as fighters increasingly move into settled areas of the country such as Khyber Paktunkhwa province in the north, and Karachi in the south, it has put immense strain on law enforcement agencies that are generally less well-funded and trained than the army.

"It's a big concern," said Hayat of the killings. He was brought in last September to oversee a new campaign to bring down the violence plaguing the city. Karachi's problems are extensive: extortion, kidnapping-for-ransom, targeted assassinations, and car theft, to name a few. Newly-elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, acutely aware of the city's importance to the country's economy ordered paramilitary Rangers and police to bring order to it.

Police have been killed on their way to and from work. Ahmed's family said he would put on his uniform at the station house so people wouldn't know his profession. Grenades have been lobbed at police stations and vehicles. In two of the most shocking attacks, the man dubbed the city's "toughest cop," Chaudhry Aslam, was killed in a bombing claimed by the Pakistani Taliban in January, followed by a roadside bomb that killed 13 police officers in February.

To be sure, the Pakistani Taliban are not the only driver of the violence in the city. Karachi has been a cauldron of ethnic and political tension for decades, where political parties have militant wings, gangs make money through drug-trafficking, land grabbing and other forms of crime, and sectarian groups target the city's Shiite Muslim minority. Just Wednesday, at least 15 people were killed in a gangland shootout, and six police were wounded.

Samina Ahmed from the International Crisis Group said it's not necessarily that the jihadi threat has grown, but that state control has increasingly withered in Karachi and other cities, allowing criminality and militancy to thrive.

"Large parts of Karachi can't be policed effectively because the police don't have the means -- either the bodies or the technology," she said. "It's a megacity and megacities require efficient law enforcement and that is what Karachi lacks. So is it that the jihadi threat that can't be tackled or is it that the state isn't trying to tackle it seriously enough?"

Religious militants have long had a presence in the city, but it was generally used by them as a place to seek medical treatment, raise money through bank robberies or to recruit at the city's massive network of religious schools. But the combination of Pakistani military operations in the northwest starting in 2009, along with American drone strikes, drove many militants to seek shelter here among the city's large Pashtun population.

Raja Umar Khattab, an investigator with the police unit responsible for hunting down militants, knows the dangers of the job, his neck scarred from a roadside bomb that almost killed him. When the violence in Karachi began to rise, he said, militants first attacked politicians and activists from the Awami National Party, which has a strong presence in Pashtun areas. Dozens of ANP members were killed, and militants tore down flags from their offices. Then they turned their attention on law enforcement personnel, he said.

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