Pakistani Rioters Sack Utilities Office, Burn Cars and Buses in Power Cut Protest

A crowd protesting power cuts rioted in the home city of Pakistan's prime minister Monday, ransacking the office of the state electricity company, torching a bank and leaving at least 13 people injured.

The unrest in Multan was the latest in a series of violent incidents to buffet the new government as it mulls how to trim the power of U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf.

Several hundred men marched on the office of the Water and Power Development Authority to protest power cuts that the city's textile industry said were killing business.

• To see photos of the protest, click here.

Some protesters stormed the office, dragged furniture into the front yard and set it ablaze along with several motorcycles. About a dozen cars and buses and a nearby bank building were also set on fire.

The protest was organized by a textile industry association, which had set Sunday as a deadline for the electricity company to reduce power outages, known locally as load-shedding.

Express News television showed protesters armed with sticks breaking windows, overturning cars and severely beating three men inside the office compound before they were chased away by a man in civilian clothes who fired an assault rifle over their heads.

Mirza Muhammad Ali, the regional police chief, said 10 power company staffers were injured before armed colleagues drove back the protesters. He said three protesters were also hurt.

Police fired guns into the air and tear gas canisters to disperse the protesters. Ali said they made almost 40 arrests.

Some protesters carried a banner reading "Constant load-shedding is our financial murder."

"We are facing up to 20 hours load-shedding (daily), and about 500,000 loom workers and their families are facing starvation if the businesses are shut down," said Khalid Sandhu, a leader of the All Pakistan Power Looms Association.

The electricity crisis is among an array of economic issues facing a government dominated by the parties of assassinated ex-leader Benazir Bhutto and another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, which took office earlier this month.

The coalition parties must also address rising Islamic militancy and decide whether to confront Musharraf, whose unpopularity helped them win parliamentary elections in February.

The government has pledged to restore Supreme Court judges fired by the former army strongman in November to stop legal challenges to his re-election the previous month.

Some analysts argue that the return of the judges could prompt Musharraf to quit.

But the ruling parties are squabbling over how to reinstate the justices, raising speculation that Bhutto's party wants to avoid a showdown with a leader who earned strong backing in Washington for helping pursue al-Qaida.

Khwaja Asif, a Sharif lieutenant, said Monday it could take another 10 days to work out a solution.

The Multan unrest came five days after political violence left at least 10 people dead in the southern city of Karachi.

The bloodshed helped sink efforts by Bhutto's party to reconcile with a rival party based in Karachi that was part of the previous pro-Musharraf government.

That has raised concern that the new government will struggle to maintain law and order in the port city, Pakistan's biggest, which has a history of urban violence involving organized crime gangs, Islamic extremists and political groups.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani called Monday for people in his native Multan and elsewhere to "remain calm, show patience and restraint from violence" because it would not help solve the power crisis.

The country is suffering growing outages due to soaring demand and a lack of investment in generating capacity, crippling businesses and leaving ordinary citizens without even fans as the country heads toward the heat of summer.

The government blames the previous government for the neglect and has pledged to address the shortfall. But it has also warned that the outages will get worse before any new generating plants can come on line.