ONE of Pakistan's most outspoken politicians was shot dead by one of his own guards yesterday, apparently because he opposed blasphemy laws.
Witnesses said Salman Taseer (56), the governor of Punjab province, was killed by a lone gunman in police uniform at a small market close to his home in the capital, Islamabad.
Malik Mumtaz Qadri, a member of the Punjab Police Elite Force, was said to have surrendered at the scene.
The shooting was the most high-profile political assassination since the murder of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister, in December 2007.
Last night the government appealed for calm as members of Mr Taseer's Pakistan People's Party staged demonstrations in the Punjab city of Multan. The ruling coalition is on the brink of collapse following the defection of a key ally, and further unrest would deepen the political crisis.
Mr Taseer was a familiar figure at Islamabad's Kohsar Market, an arcade popular with expat aid workers, diplomats and journalists. "We saw him walking to Kohsar Market like he always does when he is in Islamabad," said Ali Imran, a security guard.
"We always thought it was risky, given who he was. Then later when he was leaving the place, we saw a man in uniform -- just one -- shooting at him. The governor fell down and the man who fired at him threw down his gun and raised both hands."
Five other people were injured as guards responded to the attack.
Rehman Malik, Pakistan's interior minister, told reporters that the alleged gunman told them he killed Mr Taseer because "the governor described the blasphemy laws as a black law".
Mr Taseer, who was close to President Asif Ali Zardari, was appointed governor of Punjab two years ago. Known for his outspoken views, he received dozens of death threats after taking up the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for insulting the prophet Mohammed.
Hardline religious leaders accused him of being a pawn of the West and warned he would face a fatwa if he continued his campaign. The issue divided a country where a small, secular elite fears provoking the wrath of conservative clerics.
In a recent interview Mr Taseer said he was determined not to back down.
"I have a lot of support for changing the blasphemy laws -- except for this small fringe of lunatics that have singled me out," he said. The shooting occurred as Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani tried to muster support for the government after a leading partner withdrew from the coalition over fuel price policies, adding new political instability to the volatile country.
Earlier, the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, said it would not demand a vote of no confidence in Mr Gilani because it would aggravate instability in the South Asian country, a strategic ally of the United States.
Mr Sharif said he would however present the government with demands, such as the scrapping of fuel price rises and the dismissal of ministers accused of corruption, giving it three days to agree from the end of a three-day mourning period. (© Daily Telegraph, London)