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Street battles between two rival gangs armed with RPGs and machine guns killed at least 16 people -- including four women -- in Pakistan's Karachi on Wednesday, officials said.
The clash, which according to police also injured 39 people, mainly schoolchildren, was the worst outbreak of criminal-related violence to plague the troubled city in recent months.
It "erupted this morning when two gangs exchanged heavy gunfire" in the Lyari neighbourhood, senior police official Faisal Bashir said, adding that school pupils had been hurt in the crossfire.
"Later they fired RPGs and lobbed hand grenades at each other," he added, saying the death toll was expected to rise.
Major Sibtain Rizvi, a spokesman for paramilitary troops, added that two gangsters had been killed and one had been arrested.
Dr Seemi Jamali of the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre, where some of the injured were taken, said three paramilitary rangers and two police were wounded.
Bashir, the police officer, said one of the gangs suspected the other of providing a tip to police that led to the killing of a top leader.
- Bleeding and screaming -According to police the firing began around 4:00 am (1100 GMT) while major blasts were heard at noon.
Din Muhammad, a 43-year-old resident who was being treated at Karachi Civil Hospital for a gun-shot wound in his right leg, said he was sitting at the shop when he heard explosions.
"There was a big bang and then people were shouting and crying, I closed the shutter of my shop to run home but I saw people fallen into the ground, bleeding and screaming," he said.
"I was running towards a group of people lying on the ground a few yards away and then I fell to the ground," after being shot, he added.
"My leg was bleeding and I could not stand up, I remained there for around twenty minutes and then local people came and brought us here," he said.
An AFP reporter at the hospital said that some people, who were accompanying the wounded, started chanting slogans against security forces before briefly clashing with them.
By Wednesday afternoon, some 200 police commandos had arrived on the scene to conduct a search operation after the clash had ended, senior police official Shah Nawaz told AFP.
- 'Police inaction' -Lyari, one of the poorest and most violent neighbourhoods of Karachi, is known for frequent violence between rival gangs.
It is largely dominated by ethnic Baluch linked to the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari which rules the southern Sindh province.
Local police said Wednesday's fight was believed to involve two splinter organisations -- the "Uzair Baloch" and "Ghaffar Zikri" gangs -- which grew out of the once-dominant Baba Ladla group.
An operation launched by police and paramilitary government rangers in the city's tangled maze of streets last September had appeared to be having a positive effect, until this latest incident.
But Tauseef Ahmed Khan, an analyst, said there was a nexus between the PPP and Lyari gangs which prevented authorities from arresting suspected criminals and confiscating their weapons.
"The current targeted operation has no effect on Lyari because the police and law enforcement agencies consider the gangsters of Layari as their assets".
"No effort has ben made to cut the supply of illegal weapons to Lyari and that is why today we have gangsters holding RPGs and firing at school children", he said.
"Today's incident is the worst in the history of Layari," he added.
Karachi, a city of 18 million people which contributes 42 percent of Pakistan's GDP, has been plagued by sectarian, ethnic and political violence for years.
The city is also wracked by militants, especially the Taliban who last month claimed credit for a bomb blast that killed 12 policemen on a bus.
According to the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC), 2,507 people were murdered in Karachi in 2013, the highest number since records began nearly 20 years ago.
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