Pakistani governor assassinated in Islamabad

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The governor of Pakistan's Punjab province was shot dead near his Islamabad home on Tuesday, in a brazen assassination that threatens to sink the nuclear-armed country ever deeper into chaos.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, who is facing a fight for survival after losing his parliamentary majority, immediately appealed for calm with memories fresh of riots sparked by previous political killings in Pakistan.

Officials said Salman Taseer, 66, who was appointed governor of Pakistan's most populous and politically important province in 2008, was killed by one of his bodyguards opposed to his public criticism of controversial blasphemy laws.

It was the most high-profile political killing in Pakistan since former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007.

Taseer was one of the most moderate voices in the main ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and personified a liberal elite, free from the emotive tug of conservative Islam and often criticised as detached from the impoverished masses.

Spent cartridges and blood stained the road in Islamabad's upmarket F6 sector, just a short distance from where Taseer kept a home, witnesses said.

"He was a very good friend, a politician and a businessman. He was a national hero we have lost him," said Interior Minister Rehman Malik.

He named the assassin as Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, a guard assigned to the governor on at least five or six previous occasions.

"He confessed that he killed the governor because he had called the blasphemy law a black law," Malik said.

Taseer was outspoken against the Taliban and Islamist militants hunkered down in the country's northwest, who have also made increasing inroads into Punjab in recent years, and most recently against blasphemy laws.

Rights activists say existing legislation encourages Islamist extremism and the issue shot back to the headlines late last year after a Punjab court sentenced a Christian mother-of-five to death for insulting the Prophet Mohammad.

"Taseer showed himself to be a rare politician, willing to risk his life in espousing an unambiguous position against discrimination and abuse," said Ali Dayan Hasan, senior South Asia researcher at US-based Human Rights Watch.

Witnesses shook with fear after the attack, recounting to AFP the moments they heard gunfire puncture the otherwise peaceful cold afternoon in what is one of the most desirable residential districts of the capital.

"The governor used to visit the market frequently on foot. He used to go shopping here," said 50-year-old local resident Mazhar Iqbal.

"When I hard the gun fire I came out. I only glimpsed the governor from a distance as he was being put in a vehicle."

Analysts said threats to Taseer's life and the assassination underscored how deeply religious extremism had penetrated society, just days after businesses closed across Pakistan to protest against any softening of the blasphemy law.

Gilani, the prime minister, appealed to PPP workers and supporters to remain calm and allow time for a proper investigation, announcing a state funeral for Taseer and three days of national mourning.

Both Gilani and President Zardari said the culprits will be brought to justice and ordered an urgent inquiry, their offices said in separate statements.

"The perpetrators of this heinous crime must be punished. They will be punished," President Zardari said.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the assassination, calling Taseer's death "a loss for Pakistan", and William Hague, foreign secretary of Pakistan's former colonial power Britain, said he was "shocked".

Dozens of PPP supporters took to the streets in Punjab's capital Lahore, burning tyres and blocking traffic on Tuesday as shops quickly closed, witnesses said.

Massive riots broke out after former PPP prime minister Bhutto's assassination three years ago, paralysing the financial capital Karachi.

The party is already facing a barrage of problems since losing its majority on Sunday with the departure of junior coalition partner the Muttahida Qaumi Movement to the opposition benches.

Shortly before Taseer's killing, opposition leader Nawaz Sharif gave the prime minister 72 hours to agree to a series of reforms, otherwise threatening to expel the ruling party from government in Punjab.

Analysts say Gilani will be reluctant to alienate Sharif, worried that his Pakistan Muslim League-N party could call for a vote of no confidence in the government and so force early elections.

But a PML-N spokesman later told AFP that the ultimatum would be extended to begin after the three-day mourning period for Taseer.

Political analyst Hasan Askari said the killing would compound the immense pressures on the weakening government.

"It accentuates the problems PPP is already facing," he told AFP.

"The opposition will try to paralyse the government so that it collapses on its own... Sharif will say that if the government cannot protect its own governor, how can it provide security to the common man?"

© 2011 AFP

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