The governor of Pakistan's Punjab province has been shot dead, reportedly by a member of his own security detail, at a busy market in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.
Salman Taseer was killed on Tuesday as he stepped out of his car near Kohsar market, an area popular with wealthy Pakistanis and expatriates. He was shot 26 times, Shaukat Kayani, a doctor at the Poly Clinic Hospital, said.
The police commando who is alleged to have carried out the attack was immediately taken into custody.
Taseer, a prominent member of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) who is usually based in Lahore, was visiting Islamabad and as a consequence was not being guarded by his usual security detail.
Rehman Malik, Pakistan's interior minister, named the attacker as Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, a guard assigned to Taseer from the garrison city of Rawalpindi on at least five or six previous occasions.
He said that Qadri had admitted to carrying out the attack because of Taseer's opposition to Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law, which came under scrutiny in recent days after a Christian woman was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad.
Blasphemy law critic
Taseer, an outspoken critic of the law and a staunch defender of minority rights, frequently used the social media platform Twitter to get his views across.
In one of his last posts he wrote: "I was under huge pressure 2 cow down before rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I'm the last man standing."
|Taseer, right, was a prominent PPP member and an outspoken critic of Pakistan's blasphemy law [AFP]
Malik said that Qadri "confessed that he killed the governor because he had called the blasphemy law a black law".
Omar Waraich, the Pakistan correspondent for the British Independent newspaper, said that Taseer had been aware of the threats on his life, but had continued to be vocal on the issues he cared about.
"He constantly insisted that it was much more important for him to speak out and defend the rights of minorities who were in a far more vulnerable position than him, than to let those threats silence him," he told Al Jazeera.
Following Taseer's assassination, dozens of supporters took to the streets of Lahore, Punjab's provincial capital, burning tyres and blocking traffic.
Punjab is Pakistan's most politically important province and the killing of Taseer is the most prominent assassination of a political figure in Pakistan since the killing of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister, in December 2007.
Yousuf Raza Gilani, Pakistan's prime minister, announced a three-day mourning period for Taseer.
Punjab is a major base and recruiting ground for Pakistan's military and security establishment, which many fear is increasing sympathetic to armed religious movements operating in the country.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Islamabad, Talat Masood, a retired army general and security analyst, said Taseer's killing was "one of the most serious events in terms of violence".
|Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, a guard assigned to Taseer, allegedly confessed to the killing [Reuters]
"It only goes to show that even the top people who are trying to protect themselves with all the state power at their command are still vulnerable," he said.
Masood said it appears that Taseer's personal bodyguards had been penetrated by the same radical groups, either sectarian or orientated towards Kashmir, that have made Punjab an increasingly violent place.
"They [public officials] don't know who is really loyal to them and what sort of ideological indoctrination these guards had been subjected to," he told Al Jazeera.
An intelligence official interrogating Qadri, Taseer's suspected killer, was quoted by the Associated Press news agency as saying the police commando had said he was proud to have killed a blasphemer.
The killing is a blow to Pakistan's embattled secular movement and the country as a whole, already mired in crises from a potential no-confidence vote against the government to regular bombings by armed groups.