KARACHI: Thirteen people, seven of them children, were killed in Karachi Tuesday when a landslide struck their thatch huts in Gulistan-e-Jauhar. The victims, who police said were from three families, were fast asleep in their abodes on two plots carved out of a hill when the tragedy struck in the early hours. These unfortunate people, including three women and three men, were buried alive when a mass of rocks and soil fell on them around 2am in Block 1 of the eastern city neighbourhood.

Tearful relatives gathered at the scene, watching as the bodies were pulled from the rubble and wrapped in shrouds. One victim was a girl believed to be as young as six months, a rescue worker said. “After up to five hours of rescue work the 13 bodies of the victims were recovered from the heap of stones and dust,” senior police officer Javed Jaskani said.

The victims’ relatives, area residents and personnel of law enforcement agencies initially started the rescue operation on their own, digging through the rubble with shovels and hoes in the hunt for survivors. The rescue work continued like this before workers of rescue service switched to mechanical tools, which arrived after two long hours. Police personnel, who participated in the operation, said lives of some the victims could have been saved through a timely rescue operation.

The bodies of the eight victims were sent to their hometown in Bahawalpur area and five to Rahim Yar Khan for burial. Residents of the area said that there were total four plots, each measuring 400 square-yards, which were allotted in 1995, but part of the hill was removed to make way for additional living space by land mafia. They said inhabitants of two of these plots were hit while those living in other two plots remained unaffected. The residents said that one of these plots belongs to Rizwan Soomro, a brother of a PPP leader Ayaz Soomro, and another to Farzana Qadir. Tarif Lohdi, an engineer by profession, said that hills were cut without taking proper engineering precaution which poses threat of more such incidents in future. Jaskani said that a joint enquiry would be conducted by the police and the city administration to probe the cause of the tragedy, adding that no criminal elements were believed to be involved.

But survivors termed the incident a criminal act and blamed the land mafia for the incident. “We were settled here about 10 to 12 years ago by the owners to avoid occupation,” said the affected occupants of these plots. However, area residents alleged that people living in empty land plots work for land mafia and they move from one plot to another to occupy it illegally. They said a number of these temporary settlers were being patronised by a police officer, Javaid Abbas, who even pays them and provide their services to land mafia. Rising from slumber, Karachi Commissioner also imposed a ban on building plans in hilly areas and formed a four-member joint inquiry committee comprising police and district administration officials to probe the landslide incident.

Sindh Inspector General of Police (IGP) Ghulam Hyder Jamali said the inquiry will determine ownership and cutting of the plots involved. “It will be ascertained after an investigation as to whether the incident was a natural occurrence or a planned act,” he explained. “The team will investigate if there was any element of conspiracy of land mafia or any other criminal element in it,” said police officer Javed Jaskani, who is also member of the inquiry team. He said it did not appear to be a case of crime or conspiracy but as the lives of the people are involved, the case will be investigated from all angles.

“People including the surviving victims and their families had different opinion. To some these plots were created through china-cutting while others say that they were regular plots. Yet some others claim that these poor settlers had received threats of dire consequences if they did not leave the place,” Jaskani said. According to a private TV channel China-cutting means illegal expansion and encroachment of land.