ISLAMABAD — The governor of Pakistan's powerful Punjab province was shot dead in the capital Tuesday by one of his guards, who told interrogators afterward that he was angry about the politician's stance against the country's blasphemy law, officials said.
The killing of Salman Taseer was the most high-profile assassination of a political figure in Pakistan since the slaying of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, and it rattled a country already dealing with crises ranging from a potential collapse of the government to Islamist militancy.
The killing could also add to concerns about inroads by Islamist extremists and fundamentalists into Pakistan's security establishment.
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Taseer was a member of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and a close associate of President Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's widower. The governor was vocal on a range of subjects, even using Twitter to get across his views.
Video: Three years later, remembering Bhutto's legacy (on this page)
In recent days, as the People's Party has faced the loss of its coalition partners, the 56-year-old Taseer has insisted that the government will survive. But it was his very public stance against the blasphemy law that apparently led to his killing.
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.
An intelligence official interrogating the suspect, identified as Mumtaz Qadri, told The Associated Press that the bearded elite force police commando was boasting about the assassination, saying he was proud to have killed a blasphemer.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media on the record.
Qadri is 26 and from Barakhao, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Islamabad, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said.
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 center, which is popular among foreigners in Islamabad.
"It was one shot first and then a burst. I think nine or 10 shots," said R.A. Khan, another witness who was drinking coffee at the time. "I rushed and saw policemen over another police commando, who was lying on road with his face down."
Taseer was believed to be on his way to see someone for a meal, Malik said. Other members of his security detail were being questioned, Malik said, who added that the security for Taseer was provided by the Punjab government.
"We will see whether it was an individual act or someone had asked him" to do it, Malik said of the attacker.
Sense of crisis
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.
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 defense 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.
His assassination in broad daylight will reinforce the impression that the government is nowhere near to stabilizing the country.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.