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Gunmen kill Pakistan minority affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti

Bhatti,a Christian,was a critic of Pak's harsh blasphemy law that gives death for insulting Islam.

Written by Agencies | Islamabad |
March 2, 2011 11:39:39 am

Gunmen shot and killed Pakistan’s government minister for religious minorities on Wednesday,the latest attack on a high-profile Pakistani figure who had urged reforming harsh blasphemy laws that impose the death penalty for insulting Islam.

The killing of Shahbaz Bhatti,a member of Pakistan’s Christian community,was another major blow to Pakistan’s besieged liberals,who say the attacks are a symptom of an increasingly radicalised Muslim-majority public. Earlier this year,Punjab province Governor Salman Taseer was killed by a bodyguard who said he was angry that the politician opposed the blasphemy laws — and many ordinary Pakistanis praised the murderer.

Bhatti was on his way to work in capital Islamabad when unknown gunmen riddled his car with bullets,police officer Mohmmad Iqbal said. The minister arrived dead at Shifa Hospital and his driver was also wounded badly,hospital spokesman Asmatullah Qureshi said.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack,but private Pakistani TV channels showed pamphlets at the scene of the killing that were attributed to the Pakistani Taliban warning of the same fate for anyone opposing the blasphemy laws.

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Gulam Rahim was coming from a nearby market when he saw Bhatti’s car drive out of his house. Three men standing nearby with guns suddenly began firing at the vehicle,a dark-coloured Toyota.

Two of the men opened the door and tried to pull Bhatti out,Rahim said,while a third man fired his Kalashnikov rifle repeatedly into the car. The three gunmen then sped away in a white Suzuki Mehran car,said Rahim who took shelter behind a tree.

Pakistani TV channels showed Bhatti’s vehicle afterward,its windows shattered with bullet holes all over. It was not immediately clear why Bhatti,a member of the ruling Pakistani People’s Party,did not have bodyguards with him.

Pakistani government leaders condemned the attack.

“This is a concerted campaign to slaughter every liberal,progressive and humanist voice in Pakistan,” said Farahnaz Ispahani,an aide to President Asif Ali Zardari. “The time has come for the federal government and provincial governments to speak out and to take a strong stand against these murderers to save the very essence of Pakistan.”

Bhatti’s friend Robinson Asghar said the slain minister had received threats following the death of the Punjab governor. Asghar said he had asked Bhatti to leave Pakistan for a while because of the threats,but Bhatti had refused.

Pakistan’s information minister,Firdous Ashiq Awan,said Bhatti had played a key role in promoting interfaith harmony,and he was a great asset.

“We are sad over his tragic death,” she said,adding that the government would investigate why he did not have a security escort.

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