Christian Pakistan minister assassinated by gunmen

Pakistan's government minister for religious minorities died today after being shot by gunmen in the capital Islamabad, hospital officials said.

Shahbaz Bhatti was dead on arrival at Shifa Hospital after the attack.

Mr Bhatti was a Christian who had been threatened by Islamist militants in the past because he has spoken out against the country's blasphemy laws.

Earlier this year, Punjab province's governor was killed by a bodyguard who said he was angry that the politician opposed the blasphemy laws, which impose death for insulting Islam.

Mr Bhatti was on his way to work in Islamabad when unknown gunmen riddled his car with bullets, police spokesman Mohmmad Iqbal said.

The minister's driver was also wounded badly, hospital spokesman Asmatullah Qureshi said.

No group immediately claimed the attack, but private Pakistani TV channels showed pamphlets at the scene of the killing that were attributed to the Pakistani Taliban warning of the same fate for anyone opposing the blasphemy laws.

Pakistani government leaders condemned the minister's murder.

"This is a concerted campaign to slaughter every liberal, progressive and humanist voice in Pakistan," said Farahnaz Ispahani, an aide to President Asif Ali Zardari.

"The time has come for the federal government and provincial governments to speak out and to take a strong stand against these murderers to save the very essence of Pakistan."

Mr Bhatti's friend Robinson Asghar said the minister had received threats after the death of the Punjab governor, Salman Taseer. Mr Asghar said he had asked Mr Bhatti to leave Pakistan for a while because of the threats, but he had refused.

Pakistan's information minister, Firdous Ashiq Awan, said Mr Bhatti had played a key role in promoting inter-faith harmony, and was a great asset.

"We are sad over his tragic death," she said, adding that the government would investigate why he did not have a security escort.