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Latest killing fuels fears of Pakistan's Christians

Pakistan's president has said the country must not buckle to terrorism in the aftermath of the assassination of the Christian minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, who spoke out against controversial blasphemy laws.

As Christian communities across Pakistan held demonstrations to protest Wednesday’s killing, President Asif Ali Zardari said the country had to fight a mindset of intolerance which had allowed the killing to happen.

"We will not be intimidated nor will we retreat," he said yesterday. "Such acts will not deter the government from eliminating extremism and terrorism. Shahbaz fell victim to the negative mindset and intolerance that also took the lives of... [former prime minister} Benazir Bhutto and Punjab Governor Salman Taseer."

But such words will likely bring little solace to Pakistan's minority communities and its liberals, horrified that two high profile politicians who had vigorously campaigned for tolerance were so coldly murdered within the space of two months. Nor will they take comfort from the government's decision to drop its plans to reform the blasphemy laws, which Mr Taseer – who was assassinated in Islamabad in January - and Mr Bhatti had condemned so boldly.

As a wave of international condemnation poured into Pakistan, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani announced three days of official mourning and said that flags would fly at half-mast today, when Mr Bhatti is expected to be buried in his home village near Lahore.

Members of the country's Christian community -- both angered and scared by the minister's brazen murder -- held protests in a swathe of towns and villages. In Sialkot, demonstrators filled the city centre, waving banners and flags. In Multan in central Punjab, around 150 Christians blocked a road and burned tyres. There were similar protests in Lahore and the threat that more would follow if the government did not take steps to protect minorities and bring Mr Bhatti's killers to justice.

"Everybody is sad and downhearted, but they are also feeling a little aggressive too. All over Pakistan, especially in the Punjab, people have been coming out and blocking roads," said Sohail Johnson, a Christian activist from Lahore. "They feel insecure here in Pakistan. If a federal minister in a federal area can be assassinated, then what is the situation for ordinary people?"

In Islamabad, police said they were questioning up to 20 people in connection with the killing and issued an artist's sketch of one of the gunmen who stopped Mr Bhatti in his car as his approached his mother's house in the city and sprayed him with bullets. Pamphlets apparently produced by al-Qa'ida and the Tehrik-i-Taliban were said to have been found at the scene. One key issue for investigators is why the minister, who had talked of the threat to his life, was travelling without his security detail.

The recent controversy over the blasphemy laws, tightened under the rule of military dictator Zia ul-Haq, was triggered last November when a court sentenced to death a Christian woman who had been convicted of insulting the Prophet Muhammad. The woman, an agricultural labourer, denied the allegations and both Mr Taseer and Mr Bhatti had campaigned for her to be pardoned.