Associated Press correspondents Asif Shahzad and Nahal Toosi report:
ISLAMABAD – The governor of Pakistan's most dominant province was shot and killed Tuesday by a bodyguard who authorities said was angry about his opposition to blasphemy laws carrying the death sentence for insulting the Muslim faith.
Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, regarded as a moderate voice in a country increasingly beset by zealotry, was a close ally of U.S.-backed President Asif Ali Zardari. He is the highest-profile Pakistani political figure to be assassinated since former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto three years ago, and his death underscores the growing danger in this country to those who dare challenge the demands of Islamist extremists.
Taseer was riddled by gunshots while walking to his car after an afternoon meal at Kohsar Market, a shopping center in Islamabad popular with Westerners and wealthy Pakistanis.
Initial reports indicated the suspected gunman, a police commando guarding Taseer, unloaded up to 26 rounds from a Kalashnikov automatic rifle. The gunman could have fired that number of rounds in a matter of seconds.
Other guards then forced the police commando to the ground, according to police and hospital officials.
"It was one shot first and then a burst," said R.A. Khan, a witness who was drinking coffee at the time. "I rushed and saw policemen over another police commando, who was lying on the road with his face down."
An intelligence official interrogating the suspect said the commando had been planning the assassination since learning three days ago that he would be deployed with the governor. Police were trying to determine how he was assigned to Taseer's security detail Tuesday and whether he'd had any help.
Taseer's admirers called the governor a profile in courage in a fight for the soul of Pakistan, which in recent years has increasingly swung away from South Asia's Sufi-influenced moderation to the more fundamentalist approaches to Islam found in some areas of the Middle East.
"Taseer showed himself to be a rare politician, willing to risk his life in espousing an unambiguous position against discrimination and abuse," said Ali Dayan Hasan, senior South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.
"He was the most courageous voice after Benazir Bhutto on the rights of women and religious minorities," said Farahnaz Ispahani, a fellow leading member of the Pakistan People's Party, who wept as she spoke. "God, we will miss him."
The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, called Taseer "a champion of tolerance."
The death also is a blow to Zardari, Bhutto's widower whose ruling party is struggling to retain power after the defection of a key ally. The country's leading opposition party on Tuesday gave the government a three-day deadline to accept a list of demands to avoid collapse.
The renewed political turmoil bodes ill for military action against Muslim extremists that the U.S. believes is key to success in neighboring Afghanistan, analysts say. Pakistan's powerful army could use the lack of political consensus to avoid operations that clash with its perceived strategic interests.
Taseer, a 66-year-old businessman and media tycoon known for wearing sunglasses in public, took on the ceremonial role of Punjab governor in 2008.
Punjab is Pakistan's most populous province and is home to many of the country's wealthiest citizens. A number of militant movements thrive there, though not to the extent of the Taliban in the northwest.
Taseer publicly vented his opposition — even using Twitter — to Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws that effectively order death for anyone convicted of insulting Islam. Although courts typically overturn convictions and no executions have been carried out, rights activists say the laws are used to settle rivalries and persecute religious minorities.
People accused of blasphemy are often killed by extremists or spend significant amounts of time behind bars. In some cases, the charges border on the ridiculous: A man was recently held because he threw away a business card of someone whose first name is Muhammad.
The laws came under renewed international scrutiny late last year when a 45-year-old Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad.
Taseer called for granting Bibi a pardon, a stance that earned him death threats from Islamists.
"I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I'm the last man standing," Taseer tweeted on Dec. 31.
The guards assigned to his security detail Tuesday were provided by the Punjab province government, which is headed by the rival Pakistan Muslim League-N party, according to Interior Minister Rehman Malik. The guards were apparently one of two squads protecting Taseer, who has a permanent group at all times but gets an additional, rotating squad depending on the district he is visiting.
Officials identified the suspect as Mumtaz Qadri, a 26-year-old from Rawalpindi. They said Qadri became a police constable in 2003 and transferred to an elite squad after commando training in 2008.
Jehangir Khan, a witness who saw the suspect after he was detained by the police, told The Associated Press that the man was boasting about the act, saying, "Hey, you all, come and see, I have killed a blasphemer. You come and join me. Chant Allahu Akbar (God is great)!"
The intelligence official said the commando said he was proud to have killed a blasphemer. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media on the record.
Photos of Qadri show a bearded young man whose forehead bore bruises typical for Muslims who routinely rest their heads on the ground to pray.
His family members — including five brothers — were immediately detained for questioning, said police official Bisharat Chaudhry.
A childhood friend, Haseeb Ahmad, told AP that Qadri's family was religious and that he was an active member of an Islamic association called the Shahab-e-Islam Pakistan — or the Star of Islam in Pakistan, a street level group that organized a recent conference on the issue of blasphemy.
"Mumtaz recited verses in the praise of Prophet Muhammad," Ahmad said. "He also wept while discussing the blasphemy issue."
People's Party member Samiullah Khan said that he was surprised when he saw the attacker's appearance: "Look at his face, his beard. We are surprised how a man with such a religious appearance managed to be part of the squad meant for such a sensitive job."
Pakistani political analyst Rasul Bakhsh Rais said the assassination signals the radical mindset that has crept into Pakistan's security forces. Punjab in particular is a major base and recruiting ground for Pakistan's military and security establishment.
Islamists also have significant political power, and their political parties have brought tremendous pressure on the ruling People's Party, a largely secular grouping. Facing protests by Islamists, for instance, the People's Party recently insisted it would not touch the blasphemy laws.
"This fear and the insecure environment will make political leaders in the mainstream parties extremely cautious to offend the religious sensibilities of the radical fringe, and that is not a good sign for democratic progress and liberal politics in Pakistan," Rais said.
People's Party supporters wept and beat their heads at the hospital where Taseer's body was taken. Outside his residence in the eastern city of Lahore, hundreds of supporters chanted slogans on his behalf, while in the central city of Multan dozens burned tires and demanded the attackers be punished.
"This is a war," Taseer said in a recent sessions with reporters broadcast Tuesday by Pakistan's Geo TV. "Whether we receive threats or not, it does not make any difference to us. I am a Muslim. ... God willing, life or death for a Muslim, we are not afraid of that. Whatever threats they give to us."
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed, Sebastian Abbot and B.K. Bangash contributed to this report.