KARACHI - Rangers raided Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) headquarters in central Karachi on Wednesday, seized weapons and arrested party activists and criminals, including the murderer of a journalist.

The raid on the MQM base, known as “Nine-Zero”, sparked an angry response from the party, with workers shutting down large parts of the city. At least one supporter of the MQM, the fourth largest party in parliament, was shot dead during the raid.

Rangers said the predawn raid at MQM offices in Azizabad area was made on an intelligence tip-off that convicted criminals were hiding inside. According to sources, over 60 party activists were arrested, including member of MQM coordination committee Amir Khan.

The Rangers said there was no resistance during the raid, but television footage showed soldiers firing gunshots while leaving the offices. Senior police officer Tahir Noorani told AFP that Waqas Ali Shah, an MQM activist, was shot dead. Some witnesses believed Waqas, who was associated with party’s media wing, died from Rangers bullet but other accounts suggested the worker may have been killed by a stray bullet or by another gunman amidst the crowd. Witnesses said a local TV cameraman Waseem Mughal was also wounded. Some TV stations ran a video clip in which a man standing closer to MQM activist Waqas acted suspiciously. The TVs commented that the suspicious man may have shot Waqas dead.

The timings of the raid have brought up several questions as it comes only a day after all parties threw weight behind PPP’s Raza Rabbani for the top Senate slot. Many perceived it to be a reaction to MQM refusing to side by the PML-N in the race for Senate’s prized posts of chairman and deputy chairman. However, the PML-N denied any role. There could however be other dimensions to the timings of the raid.

The forces cordon off the entire area, blocked all entry and exit points leading to Nine Zero, and carried out a thorough search of Khursheed Begum Secretariat, MPA Hostel and several nearby houses, including the house of Altaf Hussain’s elder sister.

“We have arrested five to six people who had criminal backgrounds,” Colonel Tahir Mahmood, who was leading the team, told reporters outside the MQM headquarters. “There were some criminals to whom the court has handed down death sentence.”

A Rangers statement said those held included one man sentenced to death for the murder of a television news journalist in 2011. The statement said a “huge quantity of weapons and ammo” were seized in the raid. “The finding of weapons carries a question mark and we will investigate it,” Mahmood said.

The MQM condemned the raid and insisted that the weapons were all legally held. “It was all licensed weapons issued to the MPs of the party,” senior MQM leader Haider Abbas Rizvi told AFP. He said it was a disgrace that a leading political party was “being ridiculed in such a ruthless way”.

The MQM, whose leader Altaf Hussain lives in exile in London, holds 23 seats in the National Assembly, almost all in Karachi.

Altaf Hussain, addressing party workers over the phone, condemned Waqas Ali Shah’s killing. “He was a bright young man, why they shot that innocent boy, what was his sin?” he said. “The language which was used, and the discriminatory treatment meted out to us, is highly deplorable.”

Altaf also issued a reprimand. “You should have handed the criminals, if there were any, over to the law enforcement agencies - why did you put innocent workers’ life in danger?” he said.

The Rangers also rounded up Aamir Khan, a senior MQM leader, who was present at the time of the raid. “We have taken Aamir Khan into custody to enquire about the presence of the criminals with him,” the colonel said. Tahir Mahmood denied that the raid was politically motivated.

He said it was prompted by news that several wanted men were at the headquarters, including Faisal Mota, sentenced to death in absentia for the 2011 murder of a television reporter Wali Baber. Mota was detained besides four other hardcore criminals, Nadir, Farhan Shabir, Amir and Ubaid who say they are members of the MQM and were sentenced in the same case.

The MQM local leadership denied that any wanted criminals were at its headquarters. “This Faisal Mota and the other people Rangers are naming ... they were neither present nor picked up from the MQM office,” said Wasay Jalil, a senior leader of the party.

The MQM, which has urged a ‘peaceful’ national protest, has long been accused of using violence and intimidation to control Karachi - claims it denies. The MQM operates from the modest residence of party chief Altaf Hussain, and its adjoining buildings. The complex, known as Nine-Zero, has narrow, heavily guarded lanes that served as Mr Hussain’s base until he went into exile.

Petrol stations, schools and colleges were closed and public transport vanished from the roads during the protests by enraged MQM supporters. For die-hard loyalists, many of whom were seen weeping after the raid, the sanctity of the neighbourhood has been violated. For critics of the party, however, Nine-Zero remains a no-go area from where the MQM has used the fear of guns and bullets to control this city of 20 million.

In the past, security forces have regarded the MQM as a force capable of turning Karachi into a war zone. But over the years things have changed. Having spent more than a decade in government, the MQM is seen as weaker and somewhat directionless today. Its leader is under pressure from the British authorities as he faces a series of allegations, including money-laundering. He is also said to be suffering from health problems. In Karachi, the MQM’s muscle may be intact on the ground but it is believed that the army is managing to persuade the party to move away from its violent past.

Speaking to a private TV channel, senior MQM figure Farooq Sattar said the operation was “inappropriate and beyond understanding”. “MQM has itself always maintained its policy of zero tolerance against crime and terrorism, and it has always offered to cooperate,” he said. The MQM said paramilitary Rangers had detained a number of its leaders including Amir Khan, a member of its Rabita Committee.

Col Tahir told local media Khan had not been arrested, but was being held for questioning to explain “the presence of criminal elements”. The colonel said the cache of weapons recovered included illegal arms that “cannot even be imported into Pakistan”. “We suspect that these weapons may be those from missing Nato containers,” he said. Party officials however reiterated the weapons were held legally.

During the raid, the Rangers cut off the telephone lines at Nine Zero, disabling communication with MQM’s international secretariat and also took away the CCTV system installed in the surrounding of MQM headquarters.

Witnesses said that the operation continued in the area despite gathering of a large number of MQM supporters and workers at Mocka Chowk intersection. They said enraged protesters started walking towards Nine Zero and as they reached closed to the MPA Hostel, the Rangers deployed there started firing.

Some newsmen who witnessed the whole episode said that 28-year-old Waqas accompanied by journalists walked along the protesters when a bullet pierced into him. A journalist who was standing behind Waqas told The Nation that a “masked Rangers man standing at Rangers mobile crocked his SMG rifle, another soldier carrying pistol started firing while rest of personnel started baton charge” on the protesters.

He said that protesters were chanting slogans and wanted to proceed towards MQM headquarters. Before it, he said, some senior workers of MQM tried to draw a line between the security forces and protesters to avoid confrontation. He said, “I was standing just behind Waqas when a bullet hit him and he fell on the road with blood gushing out of his head… Rangers operation was suddenly ended and the personnel staring running out of the area firing bullets.”

But Rangers categorically rejected reports that they killed Waqas Shah saying that no Rangers personnel involved in the raid carried 9mm pistol, a weapon type that claimed Waqas’ life. Meanwhile, Rangers spokesperson asked the residents of Karachi to open their business and inform about any sort of illegal activity at Rangers helpline. Spokesman said that Rangers DG has issued orders to arrest miscreants trying to disrupt the law and order situation.