Wasif Ali Khan, a friend of Shahbaz Bhatti looks at the bullet-riddled window of car while he mourns outside a local hospital in Islamabad.—AP

ISLAMABAD: Gunmen shot and killed Pakistan's government minister for religious minorities on Wednesday, the latest attack on a high-profile Pakistani figure who had urged reforming harsh blasphemy laws that impose the death penalty for insulting Islam.

Shahbaz Bhatti was on his way to work in Islamabad when unknown gunmen riddled his car with bullets, police officer Mohmmad Iqbal said. The minister arrived dead at Shifa Hospital and his driver was also wounded badly, hospital spokesman Asmatullah Qureshi said.

The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the killing, saying the minister had been “punished” for being a blasphemer.

Witnesses said the attackers scattered leaflets signed by “The Qaeda and the Taliban of Punjab” at the attack scene, which read: “This is the punishment of this cursed man.”

Taliban militants had called for Bhatti's death because of his attempts to amend the blasphemy law.

“He was a blasphemer like Salman Taseer,” spokesman Sajjad Mohmand said by telephone from an undisclosed location.

View of pamphlet, attributed to Al-Qaida and TTP, was found at the site where Shahbaz Bhatti was gunned down in Islamabad.-APP photo

Gulam Rahim was coming from a nearby market when he saw Bhatti's car drive out of his house. Three men standing nearby with guns suddenly began firing at the vehicle, a dark-colored Toyota.

Two of the men opened the door and tried to pull Bhatti out, Rahim said, while a third man fired his Kalashnikov rifle repeatedly into the car. The three gunmen then sped away in a white Suzuki Mehran car, said Rahim who took shelter behind a tree.

Pakistani TV channels showed Bhatti's vehicle afterward, its windows shattered with bullet holes all over. It was not immediately clear why Bhatti, a member of the ruling Pakistani People's Party, did not have bodyguards with him.

After Salman Taseer's assassination, Bhatti said he was also receiving death threats, telling AFP that he was “the highest target right now”.

But he had insisted that he would work as usual.

“I'm not talking about special security arrangements. We need to stand against these forces of terrorism because they're terrorising the country,” Bhatti said at the time.

“I cannot trust on security.... I believe that protection can come only from heaven, so these bodyguards can't save you.”

Pakistani government leaders condemned the attack.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani visited the hospital and offered condolences to Bhatti's grieving relatives.

“Such acts will not deter the government's resolve to fight terrorism and extremism,” he said, adding that the killers would not go unpunished.

"This is 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."

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

Pakistan's information minister, Firdous Ashiq Awan, said Bhatti had played a key role in promoting interfaith harmony, and he 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.

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