By Zarar Khan

Gunbattles and attacks killed at least 19 people and wounded scores more Saturday as Pakistan's political crisis descended into violence between rival parties over President General Pervez Musharraf's suspension of the chief justice.

In one clash, pro-government and opposition activists traded assault rifle fire about 1 kilometer (half a mile) from Karachi's international airport. Associated Press reporters saw the bodies of five men lying in the street, four near a shot-up car, the other next to the red flag of an opposition party.

Musharraf ruled out declaring a state of emergency on Saturday, as the turmoil sparked by his March 9 suspension of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry entered a new deadly phase. In comments reported by the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan news agency, the military leader urged the nation to stand united and remain peaceful.

Karachi Police chief Azhar Faruqi said that a total of 19 people died and 65 were wounded in the violence. Hospital officials said most of the casualties had suffered gunshot wounds.

The fighting broke out as Chaudhry arrived for what organizers hoped would be the largest in two months of rallies by lawyers and opposition parties protesting his ouster. Pro-government parties were responding with their own shows of strength.

But the plans for rival demonstrations sparked street battles and rioting, with at least 20 vehicles reportedly set on fire.

Opposition activists accused a pro-government party, the Mutahida Qami Movement (MQM), of attacking them with batons and gunfire as they attempted to greet the judge at the airport.

An AP reporter saw MQM supporters calling for ammunition and firing from buildings, reportedly at supporters of the Pakistan's People's Party and Jamaat-e-Islami. Opposition supporters were firing back. An MQM leader, Farooq Sattar, said four of the party's supporters died in the clash.

Roadblocks, including trucks with deflated tires or their wheels removed, prevented most of Chaudhry's supporters from reaching the airport. But a few dozen lawyers who went there on foot chanted, "We are with you! Down with Musharraf!"

The judge declined an offer from authorities to travel to the venue of a planned downtown rally by helicopter and so was stranded at the airport -as were hundreds of passengers from earlier flights. Police and paramilitary troops began using cranes and bulldozers to clear the way, but it was unclear when the way could be opened.

"The chief justice will only go to the city by road," said Aitzaz Ahsan, an attorney for Chaudhry.

In another part of the city, private TV network Aaj said MQM supporters were firing at its building. Cameramen and journalists on the roof of the building had to take cover and windows were shattered, but no one was hurt.

Aaj broadcast footage of a mob setting fire to the vehicles in the network's parking area.

"We are under attack," journalist Talat Hussain said on air as he sheltered behind a wall. "No one has come to help us."

Other TV channels showed men armed with rifles and handguns roaming the streets nearing burning cars and buses.

In a speech made by phone to a rally of thousands of his supporters in a Karachi square, MQM leader Altaf Hussain - who lives in exile in London -indirectly blamed Chaudhry for the violence, saying he should have heeded warnings from provincial officials to stay away.

The MQM is a partner in a coalition ruling Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital, as well as in the federal government.

Hussain urged the crowd to "control your emotions and demonstrate peace, as we are peace-loving people."

Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1999 and is still army chief, was due to address a huge gathering in the capital, Islamabad, later Saturday that organizers expected will draw over 300 000 ruling party supporters.

Critics accuse Musharraf of trying to sideline the independent-minded Chaudhry to head off legal challenges to his plan to seek a new five-year term later this year. The government maintains Chaudhry's ouster was not politically motivated and that he had abused his office.

Speaking earlier in the day, Musharraf did not mention the Karachi violence, but ruled out declaring a state of emergency - which some analysts have suggested would let him cling onto power if his efforts to seek a new term while still army chief flounder.

"There is absolutely no requirement and absolutely no environment for taking such drastic measure," Musharraf was quoted as saying.

But the government's failure to contain the unrest in Karachi, despite the presence of 15 000 security forces, will deepen the political turmoil gripping Pakistan.

Violence broke out before dawn, when unidentified gunmen killed two activists from the opposition party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a street. The Pakistan People's Party, the Sunni Tehrik religious party - both long-running rivals of the MQM in Karachi - and the religious Jamaat-e-Islami party all reported casualties.

Gunshots were heard across the city of 15 million, which has a history of militancy and political and ethnic violence.

Baton-wielding MQM supporters were also accused of attacking about 200 lawyers as they marched to Sindh High Court, where Chaudhry was due to make an address. Naeem Quereshi, a spokesman for the Karachi Bar Association, said dozens of lawyers were injured.

Earlier, Pakistan's interior minister, Aftab Khan Sherpao, had offered assurances that no one would be allowed to "disrupt peace" in Karachi, Pakistan's biggest city and commercial hub - although opposition parties accused the government of condoning the unrest.

"The government is providing all facilities to the MQM for its rally, and we are being harassed, attacked and humiliated," said Marajul Huda, Karachi chief of Jamaat-e-Islami.

  • Associated Press writer Afzal Nadeem and AP Television cameraman Abdur Rehman in Karachi contributed to this report. - Sapa-AP