Policeman Mumtaz Hussain Qadri (centre) sits in a police vehicle after being arrested by colleagues following the assassination of the Punjab governor. Image Credit: EPA

Islamabad: Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani appealed for calm and President Asif Ali Zardari strongly condemned the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in Islamabad yesterday.

President Zardari, who is currently in Karachi, has directed federal Interior Minister Rahman Malek to personally supervise the investigation into the assassination and report to him urgently, officials said.

The president said in a statement that no words were strong enough to condemn the "ghastly" crime and stressed that the perpetrators must be punished. Gilani immediately appealed for calm with memories fresh of riots sparked by previous political killings in Pakistan.

Officials said Salman Taseer, 64, who was appointed governor of Pakistan's most politically important and populous province in 2008, was killed by one of his bodyguards opposed to his public criticism of controversial blasphemy laws.

His death is the most high-profile assassination of a political figure in the country since former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was slain in Dec-ember 2007. Dozens of supporters of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) took to the streets in Lahore yesterday, burning tyres and blocking traffic in protest at the murder of Punjab's governor, witnesses said.

The protests broke out in the eastern city, the capital of Punjab province and Taseer's hometown.

Daylight shooting

The brazen daylight shooting came as wealthy Pakistanis and expatriates were enjoying a late lunch or afternoon coffee in nearby cafes at Kohsar market.

Spent cartridges littered the road in Islamabad's upmarket F6 sector, just a short distance from where Taseer kept a home, witnesses said.

"He was a very good friend, a politician and a businessman. He was a national hero. We have lost him," said Malek, the Interior Minister.

He named the assassin as Malek Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, a guard assigned to Taseer from Rawalpindi on at least five or six previous occasions.

"He confessed that he killed the governor because he had called the blasphemy law a black law," Malek said.

Taseer was outspoken against the Taliban and militants hunkered down in the country's northwest, who have also made increasing inroads into Punjab in recent years. Of late, he spoke out against blasphemy laws.

Rights activists say the legislation encourages extremism and the issue shot back to the headlines late last year after a Punjab court sentenced a Christian mother-of-five to death on charges of insulting the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).

Police and anti-terror forces surrounded the area and closed the market after the attack. A silver Toyota vehicle with a flat tyre was parked on one side. Blood was smeared on the road in two places.

Political history

Taseer became a member of Pakistan People's Party soon after it was founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on November 30, 1967. He is survived by his wife and six children.

Taseer was appointed governor of Punjab in 2008. He trained chartered accountant. As PPP Information Secretary he won a seat in Punjab assembly in 1988 and remained deputy 0pposition leader in that House. Taseer also served as minister for commerce and industry in the caretaker cabinet of former Prime Minister Mohammad Mian Soomro in 2007-08.

— With inputs from agencies