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Governor's killing sets off political powder keg in Pakistan

Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, a man identified as a guard of the governor of Punjab province Salman Taseer, is detained at the site of Taseer's shooting in Islamabad January 4, 2011. A gunman assassinated the governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, a senior member of the ruling party, in Islamabad on Tuesday, an aide said, as a new political crisis gripped the strategic U.S. ally. Salman Taseer was killed by one of his guards because of his opposition to Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said.

Mehdi Shah/Reuters/Mehdi Shah/Reuters

Pakistan's internal chaos has deepened in the aftermath of the country's most significant political assassination in years, as moderates argue bitterly with religious conservatives who believe the politician deserved death for his liberal views.

The governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, ate lunch at an upscale market in the leafy heart of Islamabad and was returning to his vehicle when one of his elite bodyguards gunned him down, witnesses say. The big-bearded security officer surrendered to his colleagues and reportedly boasted about his crime while sitting tied with ropes awaiting interrogation.

Like many others with strong religious feelings in Pakistan, the bodyguard apparently disagreed with Mr. Taseer's criticisms of the country's blasphemy laws. Pakistani courts can sentence to death any person who insults Islam, a rule that became controversial in recent weeks after a judge condemned a woman to the gallows for defamation of the Prophet Mohammed.

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Mr. Taseer, 56, the appointed head of the country's most populous and politically important province, had been a key member of the ruling party. His death was Pakistan's highest-profile killing since Benazir Bhutto's assassination in 2007. Unlike the overwhelming grief and sympathy that swept Ms. Bhutto's party to power after her death, however, reaction to the latest killing split popular opinion even before Mr. Taseer's burial.

Within hours of the assassination, a fan page appeared on Facebook in support of the alleged killer, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, and featured images of him smiling in news photos. The page quickly gathered thousands of supporters, adding dozens by the minute.

In a message to The Globe and Mail, one of the fans described her feelings: "I think [he]has done a great job," she said. "He has killed that person who doesn't have the respect of our beloved Prophet Muhammad."

Others expressed outrage at the killing. Supporters of the ruling party chanted, burned tires, and blocked traffic in at least three parts of Punjab province in a noisy declaration of solidarity with their fallen leader. His followers swarmed the hospital where doctors were conducting an autopsy. The government has announced three days of official mourning.

The comment boards of English-language news websites filled with laments for the loss of a moderate voice, and horror at the bloodthirsty response from other Pakistanis. However, an online editor at one major publication said he felt sickened that half the people writing their thoughts on his newspaper's website were cheering the politician's death, and he deleted their postings.

Marvi Memon, an opposition member of parliament, said the situation leaves her concerned about a bifurcation in the country, as moderates and conservatives grow further apart.

Parliamentarians in the lower house adjourned their session with a prayer to mark the politician's death, and talked nervously with each other about the incident.

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"It's a huge paradigm shift in the way we all look at security now," Ms. Memon said. "No one seems to be safe from their own security teams."

The killing did not stop the swirl of intrigue on other fronts, however, as political parties continued their urgent deal-making after the recent decision by one of the government's coalition allies to withdraw and sit with the opposition. The main opposition group, led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, has not revoked its demand for the government to make major policy concessions on issues such as fuel prices, budget cuts, and corruption investigations. The government could fall without Mr. Sharif's support.

Some analysts expressed hope that the death might ease the in-fighting among political elites, forcing them to confront the broader division between Pakistan's wealthy urbanites and the poorer, conservative masses. The spot where Mr. Taseer lay bleeding to death could not have been more symbolic of that divide, a row of expensive shops and restaurants known as Kohsar Market. Not far from the presidential palace, it's one of the rare places in Islamabad that overflows with Christmas decorations during the holiday season, and where stylish cafés rival their European counterparts.

Such places stand a world apart from the village outside Islamabad where Mr. Taseer's bodyguard reportedly grew up. His origins and training are now the subject of an intense police investigation, as Pakistan's leadership has demanded answers about how an extremist allegedly infiltrated the ranks of elite security forces.

For his part, Mr. Taseer seemed to understand that his moderate views made him a target but appeared at ease with the risks. In one of his final appearances on television, he laughed off a question about threats to his life.

"If somebody kills the governor of Punjab, what will happen to this country?" he said.

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The protectors sometimes become the predators. These are assassinations and attempts at the hands of bodyguards:

- Indira Gandhi: India's prime minister was shot dead in 1984 by two of her Sikh security guards in revenge for a government raid on Sikhism's holiest shrine in Amritsar to flush out separatist militants who had taken refuge there. The assassination led to rioting on a grand scale across India as Hindus took their revenge on Sikhs. At least 1,000 people are thought to have died and the army eventually intervened to quell the violence.

- Major General Khalil Kanaan: The commander of the Lebanese Army's 5th Brigade was assassinated in 1986 by a rival faction of the fractured military in co-operation with the army officer who was his bodyguard. The assassins entered Gen. Kanaan's house as he slept and pumped 28 bullets into his body. His wife was shot 19 times, but somehow survived.

- Jorge (Mono Jojoy) Briceno Suarez. The commander of the leftist rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia had three of his personal bodyguards executed in 2008 after they intended to assassinate him. Three other bodyguards escaped. The six allegedly tried to kill Mono Jojoy to collect the $5-million (U.S.) reward.

Source: Wire Services

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