Apr 25, 12:48 PM EDT

Gunmen kill prominent female activist in Pakistan


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KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) -- Gunmen on a motorcycle killed a prominent women's rights activist in Pakistan just hours after she held a forum on the country's restive Baluchistan region, home to a long-running insurgency, police said Saturday.

While investigators declined to speculate on a motive for the killing of Sabeen Mahmud, friends and colleagues immediately described her death as a targeted assassination in Pakistan, a country with a nascent democracy where the military and intelligence services still hold tremendous sway.

The gunmen shot both Mahmud and her mother, Mehnaz Mahmud, as they stopped at a traffic light Friday night in an upscale Karachi neighborhood, senior police officer Zafar Iqbal said. Later, Mahmud's car was brought to a nearby police station; blood stained the car's white exterior, the front driver's side window was smashed and a pair of sandals sat on the floor, surrounded by broken glass.

"Two men riding a motorcycle opened fire on the car," Iqbal said. Mahmud "died on her way to the hospital. Her mother was also wounded," he said.

Alia Chughtai, a close friend of Mahmud, told The Associated Press that Mahmud was driving at the time of attack and her mother was sitting next to her. Chughtai said Mahmud's driver, who escaped unharmed, was sitting in the back seat at the time of the attack. She said she did not know why the driver wasn't driving the car.

Iqbal and other police officials declined to speculate on a motive for the slaying. However, earlier that night, Mahmud hosted an event at her organization called The Second Floor to discuss human rights in Baluchistan, an impoverished but resource-rich southwestern province bordering Iran.

Thousands of people have disappeared from Baluchistan province in recent years amid a government crackdown on nationalists and insurgent groups there. Activists blame the government and intelligence agencies for the disappearances, something authorities deny.

Qadeer Baluch, an activist who last year led a nearly 3,000-kilometer (1,900-mile) protest march across Pakistan to demand justice for the missing in Baluchistan, attended Mahmud's event Friday night. Baluch, known widely as Mama or "Uncle" in Urdu, hinted that the government could be involved in Mahmud's slaying.

"Everybody knows who killed her and why," Baluch told Pakistan's The Nation newspaper, without elaborating.

In a statement Saturday, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif condemned Mahmud's killing and ordered an investigation into the attack. The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad also condemned Mahmud's slaying and offered condolences to her loved ones.

Mahmud was "a courageous voice of the Pakistani people and her death represents a great loss," it said.

Mahmud, a well-known activist who also ran a small tech company, hosted poetry readings, computer workshops and other events at The Second Floor. She continued to live in Karachi, Pakistan's southern port city, even while acknowledging the danger from insurgent groups and criminals operating there.

"Fear is just a line in your head," Mahmud told Wired magazine in 2013. "You can choose what side of that line you want to be on."

Also Saturday, Pakistan's powerful army condemned the killing of Mahmud, pledging that the country's intelligence agencies would assist in the investigation and that authorizes would "apprehend the perpetrators and bring them to justice."

"We condemn the tragic and unfortunate killing of Ms. Sabeen Mahmud," said Maj. Gen. Asim Salim Bajwa, the army spokesman, in a statement. "Our heart goes out to bereaved family at this sad moment."

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Associated Press writers Zarar Khan and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, Pakistan contributed to this report.

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