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Assassins kill Pakistani minister

Islamic fundamentalists have murdered the only Christian in Pakistan's cabinet for opposing the country's blasphemy laws.

Minister of minority affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic in his 40s, was sprayed with bullets outside his parents' home in Islamabad.

The killing further undermines Pakistan's image as a moderate Islamic state and could deepen recent political turmoil.

In pamphlets found at the scene of the shooting, al Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban said they targeted Mr Bhatti because of his faith and because he allegedly belonged to a committee that was reviewing the blasphemy laws which at the moment carry the death penalty for insulting Islam.

Mr Bhatti had just pulled out of the drive when three men standing nearby opened fire.

Two of the men opened the door and tried to pull him out, as a third fired his Kalashnikov rifle repeatedly into the car. The killers then drove off.

The government condemned the killing but made no direct reference to the blasphemy law controversy that apparently motivated the assassins.

A spokesman for president Asif Ali Zardari said: "This is a concerted campaign to slaughter every liberal, progressive and humanist voice in Pakistan. 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."

In January, Punjab province governor Salman Taseer was killed by a bodyguard after the politician opposed the blasphemy laws. Many ordinary citizens praised the assassin.

The leaflets at the scene of the shooting blamed the government for putting Mr Bhatti, an "infidel Christian", in charge of an unspecified committee and said that "this is the horrible fate of this cursed one".

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