ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, and KABUL, Afghanistan -- The governor of Pakistan's most populous province was gunned down in an upscale Islamabad marketplace Tuesday, apparently by one of his own guards, a brazen killing that threw a country already roiled by political crisis into even greater turmoil.
Salman Taseer, the outspoken 56-year-old governor of Punjab province, was killed at an open-air shopping center in the capital frequented by foreigners and the Pakistani elite. He was a member of the Pakistan People's Party and an ally of President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhuto -- who was herself assassinated just over three years ago.
Pakistan is considered a crucial if problematic ally of the United States, and its latest woes could have repercussions on the war in Afghanistan. The Pakistani government has been under pressure to act decisively against the Taliban and other insurgents fighting Western forces in Afghanistan who use Pakistan's borderlands as a sanctuary and staging ground.
Pakistan's Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, said Taseer's killer had confessed to killing the governor because of his opposition to Pakistan's strict blasphemy laws, which have been denounced by international human-rights groups. The laws have been under particular scrutiny of late after a Pakistani Christian woman was condemned to death for allegedly defaming Islam.
The ruling People's Party, which in recent days has been struggling to cope with the defection of a major coalition partner and keep the government afloat, was plunged into mourning. Many of its senior members likened Taseer -- a popular and charismatic figure who commanded a large following on Twitter -- to the assassinated Bhutto, who also ran afoul of religious extremists.
Malik said it was not known whether the killer acted on his own or in concert with others. The blasphemy policy -- which Taseer had called a "black law" -- is strongly supported by Islamist parties. Taseer was the target of angry protests by Islamists after he called for the pardon of the condemned woman.
Pakistan's latest political crisis erupted Sunday, when the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, or MQM, announced it was quitting the ruling coalition and going over to the opposition, a move that could bring down the government and trigger early elections. Zardari and his top associates have been courting the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz, but so far without success.
Los Angeles Times special correspondent Khan reported from Islamabad and Los Angeles Times staff writer King reported from Kabul.
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