Pakistan's Punjab governor killed in gun attack

Police have said Salman Taseer was shot dead today by one of his own guards, apparently over his opposition to the country's controversial blasphemy law.

epa02515889 (FILES) A file picture dated 28 March 2009 shows Governor of Pakistan's Punjab Province, Salman Taseer and his wife arrive at the Parliament building, to listen to a speech by Pakistan's President Asif Zardari, in Islamabad Pakistan. According to media reports on 04 January 2011 Salman Taseer was killed by one of his police guards in Islamabad.  EPA/T. MUGHAL
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ISLAMABAD // A gunman assassinated the governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, a senior member of the ruling party, in Islamabad on Tuesday, an aide said, as a new political crisis gripped the strategic U.S. ally.

Salman Taseer was killed by one of his guards because of his opposition to Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said, citing initial reports.

Rights groups say the law is often exploited by religious extremists as well as ordinary Pakistanis to settle personal scores.

Islamist groups have been angry over what they believe were government plans to change or scrap the law.

The killing came as Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani tried to muster support for the government after a main coalition partner quit over government fuel price policies.

A witness at the scene said Taseer was stepping out of his car at a shopping area when he was shot.

"The governor fell down and the man who fired at him threw down his gun and raised both hands," said the witness, Ali Imran.

The shooting left blood stains on a parking area on the edge of the Kohsar shopping centre, which is popular among foreigners in Islamabad.

Taseer, a liberal and charismatic politician close to President Asif Ali Zardari, had no role in day-to-day central government but his killing will compound a sense of crisis.

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 Gilani because to do so would exacerbate instability in the South Asian nation.

That offered a reprieve but left the coalition weak.

The PML-N, believes a no-confidence vote would "damage the whole country", chairman Raja Zafar-ul-Haq told Reuters.

Sharif told a news conference he would present the government with demands such as a rollback of fuel price rises and the sacking of ministers accused of corruption, and gave the government three days to agree.

He threatened to evict members of the ruling Pakistan People's Pary (PPP) out of the Punjab provincial government, which his party dominates. Sharif suggested there may be a need for new national elections, but did not say when.

Taseer's assassination in broad daylight will reinforce the impression that the government is nowhere near to stabilising the country.

The blasphemy law came under the spotlight after a court sentenced a Christian mother of four, Asia Bibi, to death in a case stemming from a village dispute.

The law enjoys widespread support in Pakistan, which is more than 95 percent Muslim, and most politicians are loathe to be seen as soft on the defence of Islam.

But Taseer had visited Bibi in prison in a campaign for her release.

"I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightist pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I'm the last man standing," Taseer wrote on his Twitter page last Friday.

Malik said the slain politician's guard, identified as Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, confessed and had been arrested but investigations would determine if others were involved.

"Salman Taseer is a blasphemer and this is the punishment for a blasphemer," Qadri said in comments broadcast on Dunya television.

Analysts said Taseer's death would compound political tension as the opposition closes in on the government.

The second-biggest opposition party also said it would not push for a no-confidence vote, suggesting the opposition may prefer to wear down a weak prime minister by blocking legislation or staging protests to force an early election.

"The opposition will want this government to collapse rather then they moving against it. All opposition parties will pounce on Gilani in the parliament," said political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.

That could add to the difficulties of the government in pushing through economic reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has been propping up Pakistan's economy with an $11 billion loan agreed in November of 2008.

Even before the latest political turmoil, the government faced opposition from almost all political parties to its bid to implement a new sales tax -- a key condition of the IMF for the release of the sixth tranche of the loan.

The tax had originally been scheduled for implementation in July but has been delayed several times. It is under review in parliament.

The delay will squeeze Pakistan's budget as its spending is surging to deal with the aftermath of floods last year that caused almost $10 billion in damage.

Endemic tax evasion means the country's tax-to-gross domestic product ratio is about 10 percent, one of the lowest in the world.
Pakistani Taliban militants may also seize on Gilani's vulnerability by stepping up its violent campaign of suicide bombings to destabilise the government.

The upheaval coincides with increased U.S. pressure on Pakistan to hunt down militant groups to help it turn around the faltering war in Afghanistan.