Security officials, protesters clash during Pakistan strike

By Syed Raza Hassan

KARACHI (Reuters) - Pakistani SECURITY (SECURITY.C)(SECURITY.8)personnel on Tuesday clashed with marchers protesting against government plans to privatise the ailing national airline, in a skirmish that a hospital official said killed at least two protesters and injured eight.

Protesters said paramilitary forces fired after a confrontation as security forces tried to block the strikers nearing the airport in the southern economic hub of Karachi.

But a spokesman for the paramilitary Rangers force and a senior police officer denied that any of their members had fired.

The violence came as hundreds of airline employees held the latest of a months-long series of protests against the plans to privatise Pakistan International Airlines (PIA).

Police used water cannons and teargas to keep the crowd from approaching the city's Jinnah International Airport before shots were fired.

"They didn't tell us they would be using force," Suhail Baluch, chairman of PIA's Joint Action Committee, a grouping of unions, said of the firings.

"Firing straight at unarmed people is unacceptable."

One man with a gunshot wound died during treatment while the body of another had been brought for autopsy, Kaleem Shaikh, an officer of the city's Jinnah Hospital, told Reuters, adding that the men were PIA employees at the protest.

Eight other injured protesters had also been admitted for treatment, he said.

Senior police officer Kamran Fazal told reporters at the scene that police did not open fire. Police had gathered bullet casings from the scene to determine the weapons used, he said.

Despite the strike in Karachi and at PIA offices across Pakistan, flights suffered no major disruption on Tuesday.

Once a source of pride for Pakistan, flights of the loss-making carrier are now frequently cancelled and many of its aircraft have been cannibalised to keep others flying.

The government has sought to allay fears the move could bring mass layoffs, but sporadic protests have continued.

"Saving PIA means saving the country," said Ali Hussain, one of the striking employees. "Tomorrow they will sell Pakistan."

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Monday enacted legislation that effectively restricts the airline's employees from striking for six months, the government said in a statement.

Those convicted of infringements face prison terms of up to a year, and an unspecified fine.

"Let me make clear that those who continue the strike will be treated as enemies of PIA and Pakistan and they will end up losing their jobs," the Daily Times newspaper quoted Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid as saying on Monday.

(Additional reporting by Asad Hashim and Krista Mahr in Islamabad; Writing by Krista Mahr; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)