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Security tight for funeral of Pakistan minister

ISLAMABAD, Mar 4 – Authorities have shut down streets and police marksmen stood guard around Islamabad\’s main church ahead of the funeral mass of minister Shahbaz Bhatti, shot dead by suspected Islamic extremists.

Police and paramilitary forces prevented vehicles from approaching the Fatima Church ahead of the ceremony for the minority affairs minister, a Roman Catholic who was shot dead in broad daylight on Wednesday.

Armed officers took up positions on the rooftops of nearby buildings ahead of the mass, which was due to start at around 0600 GMT. Bhatti was to be laid to rest in his hometown in Faisalabad later Friday.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, who announced three days of mourning in Muslim Pakistan, where Christians and other religious minorities form about three percent of 167 million population, was expected to attend the service.

Father Rehmat Hakim, the custodian of the church, said he had been informed that Gilani would be in attendance.

Bhatti, 42, who opposed Pakistan\’s Islamic blasphemy laws, was shot as he left his mother\’s home in a residential area of Islamabad. Police said the attackers fired at least 25 bullets at his vehicle.

 A letter found at the scene, purportedly from supporters of Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the killing, police said.

The assassination sparked international outrage. US President Barack Obama said Bhatti\’s killers must be brought to justice and said he was saddened by the "horrific" attack.

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Washington is a key ally of Pakistan in the fight against militancy in the nuclear-armed country.

Bhatti had defied death threats, conceding to AFP in January that he was "the highest target right now" but vowing to continue his work and trusting his life to God.

Bhatti, who left a chilling video prophecy of his assassination, had vowed to fight to the death in defence of Pakistan\’s persecuted minorities. He became the second high-profile victim among opponents of the blasphemy law.

Two months ago, Punjab province governor Salman Taseer was shot dead by one of his own police bodyguards, who cited the politician\’s opposition to the blasphemy law as justification for killing the "apostate".

The government has said it has no plans to revise the law.

Bhatti\’s assassination rekindled international fears about extremist violence in Pakistan, a crucial ally in the US-led war in Afghanistan.

Uproar over the blasphemy law, which carries the death penalty, flared both in Pakistan and abroad after a Christian mother of five was sentenced to hang last year for making derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed.

Critics say the law is often misused to settle personal or business scores.

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