Governor Punjab Salman Taseer’s assassin Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri. — Photo by Reuters

ISLAMABAD: Hundreds of Facebook users welcomed the killing of liberal Pakistani politician Salman Taseer as a strike against reformers of the country's tight blasphemy laws.

The Punjab governor was shot on Tuesday by one of his guards, 26-year-old Mumtaz Qadri, who confessed to the murder because of Taseer's vocal opposition to the law that was recently used to sentence a Christian woman to death.

Analysts say the assassination underscores how deeply religious extremism has penetrated Pakistan's conservative society, with even the Internet-literate elite resorting to Facebook to rally support for the killer.

Nearly 2,000 Facebook users joined one group on the social networking site praising Qadri, and dozens of “fans” joined other pages set up in Qadri's honour in the hours after the shooting.

All the pages had been removed by Wednesday. Facebook was not immediately reachable for comment.

But other private account holders used their Facebook status updates to make comments such as: “We salute you Mumtaz Qadri,” “thank God he (Taseer) is not alive (any) more” and praise for the attacker as “a soldier of Islam”.

In a sign of mainstream media opposition, Pakistan's leading Urdu-language newspaper, Jang, ran a front-page story declaring: “There should be no funeral for Salman Taseer and no condemnation for his death.”

"A supporter of a blasphemer is also a blasphemer," said a sub-heading, reporting that 500 religious scholars and clerics had paid tribute to Qadri.

But voices also came out to denounce the gunman, and Facebook page named “I Hate Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri” had 70 “fans” with no comments or discussions.

Those Facebook users who spoke out in support of the politician expressed sadness over the growing Islamisation of the country.

“Sad over Death of Tolerance in Pakistan. Governor Punjab killed by his 'lunatic guard,'” said one man on his status.

“Pretext: Late Governor Salman Taseer was bold enough to stand-up against Blasphemy law... extensively used/abused against religious minorities,” he added.

“It is sad. I shiver thinking where we are heading and in which society my kids will live their lives,” said another.

Police investigations are focusing on whether the bearded police commando acted alone or as part of a wider conspiracy.

A lawyer from Islamabad's high court, Farooq Sulehria, told AFP that the assassin would find no shortage of support.

“We will provide all legal support to Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, we will fight for him in the court,” said Sulehria.

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