Updated 2:52 p.m. ET
ISLAMABAD - The governor of Pakistan's wealthiest and most populated province was shot dead Tuesday by one of his bodyguards who told interrogators he was angry over the politician's opposition to laws that impose the death penalty for those convicted of insulting Islam.
Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, 56, was a member of the ruling party and a close associate of President Asif Ali Zardari. Friends described him as an outspoken moderate who defended women's rights, minorities and secularism and he was the most high-profile politician assassinated since former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was killed in December 2007.
Taseer was a member of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and a close associate of the president. The governor was vocal on a range of subjects, even using Twitter to get across his views.
He was shot 26 times, said Shaukat Kayani, a doctor at Poly Clinic Hospital. The interior minister said it was not clear whether the guard acted alone or was part of a larger plot.
Taseer's death in the capital Islamabad rattled a country already mired in crises ranging from a potential collapse of the government to a virulent Islamist insurgency. It was a blow to Pakistan's embattled secular movement and could add to concerns about inroads by Islamist extremists into the country's security forces.
A senior Islamabad police officer told CBS News' Farhan Bokhari that the suspect, police commando Mumtaz Qadri, told investigators he was driven to attack Taseer out of revenge for the late governor's criticism of Pakistan's controversial Islamic blasphemy laws.
Taseer vented his opposition publicly even using Twitter to hard-line blasphemy laws that effectively order death for anyone convicted of insulting Islam. The laws have come under greater scrutiny in recent weeks after a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad.
Taseer said Bibi should be pardoned, earning him opprobrium from Islamist groups across the country and death threats, said Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister for minorities.
"I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightist pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I'm the last man standing," Taseer wrote on Twitter on Dec. 31.
"He was the most courageous voice after Benazir Bhutto on the rights of women and religious minorities," said Farahnaz Ispahani, an aide to Zardari and friend of Taseer who cried as she spoke. "God, we will miss him."
A Pakistani intelligence official told Bokhari on condition of anonymity that investigators were searching for any clues to suggest Qadri, the policeman, had links to militant groups.
Human rights activists have long complained that the blasphemy laws are used to settle rivalries and persecute religious minorities. Dozens are sentenced to death each year under the laws, which date back to the 1980s military rule of Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. Most cases are thrown out by higher courts and no executions have been carried out.
But under pressure from Islamist parties, the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) said recently it would not pursue changes to the laws.
Taseer's Punjab province is a major base and recruiting ground for the powerful military and security establishment, which many fear is coming under increasing influence of religious fundamentalists as Islamist movements spread. Some analysts have suggested that fundamentalist members of the security establishment pose a greater threat of Pakistan nuclear proliferation than militant groups such as the Taliban.
The suspect was identified as 26-year-old Mumtaz Qadri, a resident of the city of Rawalpindi near Islamabad. An intelligence official interrogating him told The Associated Press that the bearded, elite police commando was boasting about the assassination, saying he was proud to have killed a blasphemer. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media on the record.
The official said Qadri had been planning the assassination for the last three days, knowing he was going to be deployed with Taseer's security squad. He quoted the suspect as saying the governor "'deserved to be killed because he had termed the blasphemy law a black law."'
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the attacker was recruited as a police constable, and transferred to elite police force after commando training in 2008.
"We have ordered a probe into how he ended up in the squad," he said.
Police official Mohammad Iftikhar said Taseer was gunned down after he reached Kohsar Market, a shopping center in Islamabad popular with Westerners and wealthy Pakistanis.
Malik said Taseer was apparently on his way to meet someone for a meal.
"It was one shot first and then a burst," said R.A. Khan, a witness who was drinking coffee in the area at the time. "I rushed and saw policemen over another police commando, who was lying on road with his face down."
The interior minister said other members of Taseer's security detail were being questioned, adding that his security was provided by the Punjab provincial government.
"We will see whether it was an individual act or someone had asked him" to do it, Malik said of the attacker.
Bullet casings and blood covered much of the scene at the market, and police quickly cordoned off the area. At the hospital, ruling party supporters wept and beat their heads in grief after the news.
Outside his residence in the eastern city of Lahore, hundreds of supporters chanted slogans on his behalf, while in the central city of Multan dozens of ruling party supporters burned tires and demanded the attackers be punished.
Human rights activists said they were dismayed at Taseer's death, especially considering the difficulties the ruling party has had in advancing any legislation on human rights because of its alliances with Islamist parties.
"Taseer showed himself to be a rare politician, willing to risk his life in espousing an unambiguous position against discrimination and abuse," said Ali Dayan Hasan, senior South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Taseer was also a business and media tycoon who owned one of Pakistan's leading English-language newspapers, the Daily Times.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani also announced a three-day period of national mourning and ordered flags lowered to half-mast.