KARACHI: One of the most divisive and feared figures in Pakistan was arrested in London Tuesday, sparking fears of a violent backlash in Pakistan and sending the country’s biggest city of Karachi into lockdown.
Altaf Hussain, leader of the powerful Muttahida Qaumi Movement and wanted in Pakistan in relation to a murder case, was arrested in northwest London where he has lived in self-imposed exile since the early 1990s.
Police said a 60-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of money-laundering during a morning raid but declined to confirm his identity. A spokesman said the man was escorted to a prearranged hospital appointment during the day and remained in custody late Tuesday.
A spokesman for the MQM headquarters in London confirmed that Hussain was arrested at his home in the morning as part of an ongoing investigation and said he was happy to help police with their inquiries.
“While these inquiries are taking place, the party leadership calls for calm from our millions of party members and supporters in Pakistan and across the world,” spokesman Nadeem Nusrat said in a statement.
“The party is prepared to assist the British police with all of their inquiries as neither Mr. Altaf Hussain nor the party have anything to hide.”
Hussain is known for his fiery addresses to his supporters in Karachi though a loudspeaker connected to a telephone. He effectively controls the sometimes violent port city of Karachi from his headquarters in a north London suburb.
The MQM Party’s support base is millions of Muslim Urdu-speaking people whose families migrated to Karachi and nearby areas at the time of the 1947 partition of India.
Hussain’s hold on Karachi is so strong that he is capable of shutting down entire neighborhoods of the city of 18 million.
Within minutes of his arrest, panicked shopkeepers and market stall owners rushed to close their businesses for fear of violence, residents said.
“We deployed extra security at the British High Commission in the southern part of Karachi as soon we learned about Altaf Hussain’s arrest in London through media,” Deputy Inspector General Abdul Khalique Shaikh told Reuters.
“We have increased police patroling and we’re making further deployments at sensitive spots in the city.”
Tension was high and residents said the city came to a standstill due to massive traffic jams as people rushed home for fear of violence.
Pakistani television showed images of a car set on fire and sporadic gunfire could be heard in the city but no major acts of violence were immediately reported.
Many rushed to stock up on groceries in anticipation of a prolonged shutdown, while office workers left for home early, clogging up roads.
“We don’t know for how long the shops will remain closed and I want to store as much groceries as I can,” Razia Begum, 45, said as she jostled for space in a packed shop.
“[Gas] station operators have also closed down, fearing violence,” Mohammad Moosa said.
The MQM announced a major protest and said they would block the city’s main MA Jinnah thoroughfare until Hussain’s release.
“Everyone should come to endorse his or her love and solidarity to Altaf Hussain,” said Haider Abbas Rizvi, a senior party official.
Around 4,000 people had reached the Numaish Chowrangi intersection by 8 p.m. local time according to an AFP reporter at the scene, with many more expected to join them.
A spokesman for Pakistan Railways told AFP all trains leaving Karachi had been temporarily halted.
The Karachi Stock Exchange plunged 3 percent on the news, from 29,784 points to 29,009 points.
Karachi is Pakistan’s economic heart but is frequently rocked by ethnic, sectarian and militant violence and has one of the world’s highest murder rates.