Pakistan is being swept toward violent chaos by a growing wave of Islamist extremism, newspapers said yesterday, one day after Taliban militants killed the country’s only Christian government minister.
The assassination of minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti in broad daylight in Islamabad threatens to further destabilize a nation where secular-minded politicians are imperiled by a rising strain of violent religious conservatism in the society.
“Mr Bhatti’s brutal assassination has once again highlighted the fact that we are fast turning into a violent society,” the liberal Daily Times said in its editorial. “This is not the time to be frightened into silence. It is time to implement the law and not surrender in front of extremists.”
Bhatti is the second senior official to be assassinated this year for challenging the country’s controversial blasphemy law, which sanctions the death penalty for insulting Islam or its Prophet Mohammed.
Punjab provincial governor Salman Taseer was shot dead by his own bodyguard in January for calling for curbing abuses in the law.
“Terrorists silence another voice of interfaith harmony,” the daily Dawn ran a banner headline on its front page.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari told a party meeting on Wednesday he would resist the slide towards extremism.
“We have to fight this mindset and defeat them. We will not be intimidated nor will we retreat the official APP news agency quoted him as saying.
Mehbood Ahmed, a senior police official, said about 20 people had been detained for questioning, but police did not yet know who was responsible.
“But we are confident we will get hold of culprits,” he said.
The government has repeatedly said it would not change the blasphemy law, and officials have distanced themselves from anyone calling for amendments for fear of a backlash from extremists, a move that dismayed moderates and liberals.
“Of course the silent majority, which keeps silent over these things, also must bear responsibility,” I.A. Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told the Express 24/7 television channel on Wednesday night. “There’s blood on their hands also.”
Meanwhile, a highway ambush and a car bomb attack targeting security forces in the northwest killed 13 people yesterday, officials said, in a sign of Islamist militants’ resilience despite army operations against them.
The bombing hit the Hangu area, just outside the tribal regions along the Afghan border, senior police official Rasheed Khan said.
A bomb hidden in a vehicle in a residential area where a small police station was located went off as a police vehicle carrying officers drove by, Khan said. Three police and four civilians died.
The blast also wounded 30 people and damaged around a dozen houses, he said.
Gunmen in the nearby Khyber tribal region ambushed another group of police, shooting and killing six, local government official Farooq Khan said.
The police had been driving to a security checkpoint in the area when they were attacked.
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