Killings in Karachi Put Americans on Watch

The slaying of four US businessmen on Wednesday may be linked to US trial of Pakistani for CIA murders.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Yesterday's killing of four Americans in the Pakistani city of Karachi may have confirmed a US warning about possible retaliation for Monday's conviction of a Pakistani in a US court for a 1993 terrorist killing of two CIA employees.

Police in Pakistan's southern port city are searching for two suspects in the killings of four businessmen and their Pakistani driver.

The four Americans were auditors for Union Texas, an American oil company that accounts for roughly half of Pakistan's petroleum production. They were visiting Pakistan from their company's head offices in Houston.

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The killings came as a brutal reminder of the large-scale proliferation of weapons in this city, which has been the scene of wide-scale violence, in part due to the flow of guns from the long war in neighboring Afghanistan.

Senior government officials say that a slowdown in economic growth during the past two years has only given impetus to growing unemployment, making it more tempting for educated but unemployed young people to turn to crime, such as being hired to commit murder.

The killings were the second time that US citizens have been targeted in Karachi. In March 1995, two American employees of the US consulate in Karachi were killed and a third injured, when the van in which they were being driven to their office was ambushed by unknown gunmen.

Although no motive for yesterday's killings was immediately known, Pakistani officials say, they suspect the killings were a general retaliation against Americans for Monday's conviction of Mir Aimal Kasi for the killings of two CIA employees near the agency's offices outside Washington four years ago.

Following the Kasi verdict , the US State Department issued a warning to Americans in the Middle East in general and Pakistan in particular that retaliation was a possibility, saying: "While we have no specific threat information, American citizens traveling abroad should pay close attention to their personal security practices in light of the potential threat."

The shooting in Karachi took place as Mr. Kasi's trial outside Washington entered the penalty phase. Already convicted, Kasi faces the possibility of the death penalty. He has already received a life sentence for the killing of one of the CIA employees, Lansing Bennett, but still faces a capital murder sentence in what prosecutors are describing as the especially brutal murder of the second employee, Frank Darling.

Should the jury agree with that assessment, they could recommend that Kasi be put to death.

The killings yesterday in Karachi are also triggering speculation that it may have been an attempt by Muslim hard-liners to undercut Pakistan's relations with the US, ahead of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's visit to the Islamic country, beginning on Nov. 16.

The killings immediately sparked fears of a pullout of foreign businesses from Pakistan. But Union Texas denied that it was considering an evacuation of either its staff or their dependents.

A.G. Hoffman, president of the company's Pakistan division, told reporters: "We will carry out our operation despite this incident. We have been working here for the last 20 years. We have a long-term commitment to this country."

But opinion among local businessmen over the fallout for business prospects was less certain. Mohammad Aslam, a spokesman for the Overseas Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the main umbrella organization of foreign businesses said: "This type of incident is not unique. It goes on in other countries too. Businesses will carry on."

He said that while many would regret the killings, it's also true that after the earlier killings in 1995, none of the foreign businesses withdrew.

But other businessmen such as Ilyas Bilour, president of the Federation of Pakistan's Chambers of Commerce and Industry, warned: "This incident is going to affect investment flows. The government has to take tough action."

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