Pakistan's minister for non-Muslim religious minorities was killed in a bold attack on Wednesday, marking the latest casualty in the country's growing divide between Islamic hardliners and the mainstream population.
Shehbaz Bhatti, the only Christian in the cabinet of President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, was shot dead at close range in broad daylight by three apparently-well-armed gunmen who quickly fled the scene.
According to police officers investigating the murder, which took place in an up-market neighborhood of the capital city, Islamabad, the gunmen pulled their car over in front of Bhatti's vehicle and opened fire on it. Bhatti's driver was left unhurt, but his official bodyguard in the front seat was badly wounded in the hail of bullets.
"It was a very professional hit. We believe this assassination was the job of an Islamic militant outfit," a senior Islamabad police officer told CBS News on condition of anonymity.
Just hours after the shooting, a Taliban commander in Waziristan who identified himself only as "Abu Jihad" told CBS News' Sami Yousafzai over the telephone that Bahtti was killed for his opposition to the country's harsh blasphemy laws, vowing that all other politicians who had come out against the controversial legislation would be meet a similar fate.
"We will punish one-by-one those who insulted our beloved Prophet by blasphemy, and the list is long, others are in the queue for death," the Taliban commander told Yousafzai. "We will teach a lesson to those politicians, ministers, members of parliament and some journalists who had a role in the (fight against) the blasphemy laws, and who are working for the U.S. and crusader agenda."
Wajid Durrani, Islamabad's chief of police, said Bhatti had not been accompanied Wednesday by his usual police escort.
"As far as I know, the minister had gone to visit his mother's home prior to the killing. He (Bhatti) had specifically asked for the police escort to not accompany him," Durrani told CBS News.
The killing was the highest profile political assassination in Pakistan since the Jan. 4 assassination of Salman Taseer, the former governor of the Pakistan's densely populated Punjab province. Taseer was killed by one of his own police bodyguards, who later claimed to have killed the governor as revenge for Taseer's criticism of the blasphemy laws.
Before being gunned down, Taseer vocally opposed the prosecution of Aasiya Bibi, a Christian woman currently jailed for violating the blasphemy laws. The crime of blasphemy can carry the death sentence in Pakistan.
Like Taseer, Bhatti was also widely seen to have sympathized with Bibi. Western diplomats warned that Wednesday's killing was further evidence of the degree to which hardcore Islamic militants have gained ground in Pakistan.
"This is a very deadly situation which Pakistan faces today. The Islamists continue to be an increasing nuisance for this country," said one Western diplomat in Islamabad, who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity.
Another Western diplomat in the Pakistani capital told Yousafzai that the shooting has only heightened the sense of concern among foreigners living in Islamabad.
Bhatti's murder "proves Islamabad is not a safe place, and since 2005 most of the diplomats have abandoned social activities and we are staying in specific areas."
The second diplomat added that a member of Pakistan's parliament, Sheri Rehaman, who is backing a bill to ease the blasphemy laws, receives more than a dozen death threats every day.
Video of Bhatti saying he is ready to die for his cause: