Ready to die

Pakistan has announced three days of national mourning after a Christian government minister who decried Islamic blasphemy laws was gunned down.

Police investigators say they are on the trail of the suspected extremists who killed minority affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti outside his mother's house in Islamabad, in a brazen attack that has drawn international outrage.

Mr Bhatti, who left a chilling video prophecy of his assassination, had vowed to fight to the death in defence of Pakistan's persecuted minorities.

One police official said on condition of anonymity that investigators are looking into the security team assigned to Mr Bhatti, who became the second high-profile victim among opponents of the blasphemy law.

Two months ago, Punjab province governor Salman Taseer was shot dead by one of his own police bodyguards, who cited the politician's opposition to the draconian statute as justification for killing the "apostate".

Despite official condemnation of the January killing, Mr Taseer's killer continues to be feted a hero by Islamist hardliners and the government says it has no plans to revise the law.

However, prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani issued tough words as he ordered flags to be flown at half-mast and says security will be stepped up after Mr Bhatti's slaying.

"Anti-state elements are making their last-ditch efforts by targeting important personalities in the country in order to fulfill their evil designs," he told his interior minister, Rehman Malik, according to a statement.

The extremist threat was underlined on Thursday when a car suicide bombing and an ambush by militants targeting police in north-western Pakistan killed 15 people including nine policemen.

But Mr Gilani says the "government through fool-proof arrangements would safeguard the lives and properties of all citizens of the country, particularly to make sure they could play their role in the development of the country".

The prime minister's comments came as a video - said to have been recorded in December - spread online in which Mr Bhatti said he was being hunted by the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

Extremists wanted to kill him because of his opposition to the blasphemy law and to Sharia legislation, and because of his work for "the oppressed and marginalised", the Catholic politician said sombrely into the camera.

In the video, posted online by the European group First Step Forum, which promotes interfaith dialogue, Mr Bhatti said: "I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his own life for us".

"I'm ready to die for a cause. I'm living for my community and suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights," he said.

Mr Bhatti's assassination rekindled international fears about extremist violence in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation that is a crucial if fractious ally in the US-led war in Afghanistan.

US president Barack Obama said he was saddened by the "horrific" assassination.

"Those who committed this crime should be brought to justice, and those who share Mr Bhatti's vision of tolerance and religious freedom must be able to live free from fear," he said.

Up to four assailants sprayed a hail of bullets at Mr Bhatti's car in broad daylight on Wednesday. Police said a letter was found at the scene, purportedly from supporters of Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, claiming responsibility.

"Bhatti, a Christian, was in charge of a committee set up to amend the law against blasphemy," police quoted the letter as saying.

"This is his fate. We will not spare anybody involved in acts of blasphemy."

Senior police official Muhammad Ishaq Warraich cautioned on Thursday that the letter might "be an attempt to divert our investigations".

His colleague Bani Amin says police are confident of a breakthrough.

"The investigators were busy all night. We hope to solve this case soon," Mr Amin said.

One line of inquiry appeared to be Mr Bhatti's security detail, which was not with the minister at the time of the morning attack.

Mr Malik said it had been Mr Bhatti's decision to visit his mother without guards so as to keep the location secret. But the interior minister called the decision "wrong".

Uproar over the blasphemy law, which carries the death penalty, flared both in Pakistan and abroad after a Christian mother of five was sentenced to hang last year for making derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed.

Critics say the law is often used to settle personal or business scores.

* taken from ABC News; read it again here

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