Militants gunned down the only Christian in Pakistan's government outside his widowed mother's home Wednesday, the second assassination in two months of a high-profile opponent of laws that impose the death penalty for insulting Islam.
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Yahoo! Buzz ShareThis .Shahbaz Bhatti was aware of the danger he faced, saying in a videotaped message that he had received death threats from al-Qaida and the Taliban. In it, the 42-year-old Roman Catholic said he was "ready to die" for the country's often persecuted Christian and other non-Muslim minorities.
The slaying in Islamabad followed the killing of Salman Taseer, a liberal politician who was gunned down in the capital by one of his guards. Both men had campaigned to change blasphemy laws in Pakistan that impose the death penalty for insulting Islam and have been loudly defended by Islamist political parties.
The Taseer slaying triggered fears the country was buckling under the weight of extremism, especially since the government, fearful of militants and the political parties that champion their causes, did not loudly condemn the killing or those who publicly celebrated it.
Wednesday's slaying will only reinforce those concerns and further undermine confidence in the government, which appears paralyzed by political rivalries and unable to fix a stagnant economy or provide basic services for the country's 180 million mostly poor people.
The turmoil comes despite attempts by the Obama administration to support Pakistan, which it sees as key to ending the war in neighboring Afghanistan and defeating al-Qaida, whose leadership is believed to
reside in the mountainous northwestern regions.
Pakistani government ministers usually travel with police escorts, but Bhatti was without such protection when he was killed as he and a driver left his mother's home. Bhatti, who was minister for religious minorities, had been given police and paramilitary guards but had asked them not to accompany him while he stayed with his mother, said Wajid Durrani, a senior police official.
A friend of the politician, Wasif Ali Khan, said Bhatti was nervous about using guards after the Taseer killing and had requested a bulletproof car, but had not received one.
Bhatti had just pulled out of the driveway when three men opened fire, said Gulam Rahim, a witness. Two opened the door of the car and tried to pull Bhatti out, Rahim said, while a third fired a Kalashnikov rifle repeatedly into the dark-colored Toyota, shattering the windows.
The gunmen then sped away in a white car, said Rahim, who took shelter behind a tree.
Bhatti was hit with at least eight bullets and was dead on arrival at hospital.
In leaflets left at the scene, al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban Movement in Punjab province claimed responsibility. They blamed the government for putting Bhatti, an "infidel Christian," in charge of an unspecified committee, apparently in reference to his support for changing the blasphemy laws.