KARACHI, Dec 29: Shops were shuttered, weddings were cancelled and daily life was on hold for tens of millions of Pakistanis on Saturday as the nation mourned the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

On the second day of official mourning for the slain opposition leader, most people were unable to buy food or petrol, with almost all shops, fuel stations, banks and offices closed down.

The streets of the country’s main cities — Karachi, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore, Quetta and Peshawar — were largely empty and in many places there were scars from the unrest that has left at least 38 dead since the assassination of Benazir.

Stick-wielding armed gangs roamed the deserted highways of Karachi, the country’s normally teeming economic hub of 12 million people, trying to stop anyone who ventured out of the house.

“Karachi was never so quiet, so sad and so scary,” said Shahana Rehmat, a housewife. “We are under virtual house arrest and about to run out of fresh food and kitchen supplies.” “I have not found anything to eat since Friday,” Jannat Khan, a labourer, told AFP as he sat on the side of a litter-strewn road in the port city.Aqib Khan, an IT professional from Islamabad, said he started a 19-hour drive to Karachi for his holidays on Thursday and arrived the following day to scenes of chaos.

“As I entered the city we heard gunfire, saw looting and mobs ransacking public property,” Khan said. “There is very little fuel left in my car and I don’t think that I will be able to get out in next couple of days.”

Pakistan’s largest private charity, the Edhi Foundation, said they too were victims of the chaos. “They’ve smashed up our ambulances,” an official from the charity said. “And we don’t have any fuel.”

Rioters caused tens of millions of dollars in damage, the interior ministry said in a first rough estimate, by torching hundreds of shops, offices and banks, along with railway stations and more than 70 trains.

Around 100 prisoners escaped when mobs broke open several jails, ministry spokesman Brig (Retd) Javed Cheema said.

Police fired teargas and used batons to disperse thousands of protesters chanting slogans against President Pervez Musharraf in Rawalpindi — the city where Benazir Bhutto was assassinated — and in Peshawar.

Dozens of demonstrators also rallied in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Azad Kashmir.

“Benazir was the voice of the poor,” shouted Nadeem, an 18-year-old bus conductor who goes by only one name.

The city of Quetta, near the Afghan border, was almost completely shut down, although some public transport was running.

In a violence-wracked, alcohol-free country where weddings provide some of the only entertainment for many families, several marriage ceremonies planned for the weekend were cancelled amid the unrest.

“Guests had arrived from other cities,” Waqar-ul-Haq, the brother of a 23-year-old bride-to-be named Bushra, told AFP after a hotel cancelled her wedding festivities in Lahore.

“The reception was cancelled at the 11th hour, just when everything was ready.” In another incident in Rawalpindi, Mumtaz Ahmed said he had postponed the wedding of his daughter because none of the guests could get there.

“All our relatives are in Karachi and they could not get to the airport,” Ahmed told AFP.

“The wedding has been rescheduled -- now it will be in 2008.” Transport across the country was also in chaos.

Rail services from Karachi to the rest of the country have been suspended after a series of trains were stopped and burned by angry mobs.

Twenty railway stations were destroyed or damaged, said railways official Mir Mohammad Khaskheli.—AFP

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