Pakistani governor assassinated in Islamabad

Governor of Punjab province Salman Taseer speaks to media in Islamabad in this March 28, 2009 file photo. Gunmen killed Taseer, a senior member of the ruling party, in Islamabad, his spokesman said. (REUTERS)

Pakistan's governor of Punjab was shot dead near his Islamabad home on Tuesday, in a political 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 politically important and populous province in 2008, was killed by one of his bodyguards opposed to his public criticism of controversial blasphemy laws.

His death is the most high-profile assassination of a political figure in the country since former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was slain in December 2007.

Taseer was one of the most moderate political voices in the main ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) who personified the liberal elite often criticised as cut-off from the masses and far removed from hardline clerics.

The brazen daylight shooting came as wealthy Pakistanis and expatriates were enjoying a late lunch or afternoon coffee in nearby cafes at Kohsar market.

Spent cartridges littered 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 and PPP stalwart Rehman Malik.

He named the assassin as Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, a guard assigned to the governor from the garrison city of Rawalpindi 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 the 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.

Witnesses shook with fear after the attack, telling AFP about 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 local resident Mazhar Iqbal, 50.

"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. He was accompanied by two body guards and a few police officials."

Police and anti-terror forces surrounded the area and closed the market after the attack. A silver Toyota car with a flat wheel was parked on one side. Blood was smeared on the road in two places, said an AFP reporter.

Taseer made his money as a chartered accountant, setting up consultancy firms and a brokerage house. He had also invested in telecommunications, the media, insurance and real estate before going into politics.

He served as minister for industry and production under former military ruler Pervez Musharraf from 2007 to 2008.

Gilani, the prime minister, appealed to PPP workers and supporters to remain calm Tuesday and allow time for a proper investigation, announcing three days of national mourning with flags at half mast.

Massive riots broke out after the 2007 assassination of former PPP prime minister Benazir Bhutto, paralysing the financial capital Karachi, the cultural capital Lahore and Rawalpindi.

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

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

"The prime minister should tell us within the next 72 hours if he can do it. If he does not tell us or says he cannot do it, then we will part ways with them in Punjab also," announced Nawaz Sharif.

Analysts believe Gilani may be anxious not to alienate Sharif given that if his Pakistan Muslim League-N party decides to call for a vote of no-confidence in the government, the move could force snap elections.

Print Email