Pakistani minister tenders resignation after hug row

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ISLAMABAD, May 22 (Reuters) Pakistan's Minister of Tourism has handed in her resignation after coming under criticism from a hardline Islamist cleric for hugging her parachute instructor after completing a jump in France, an official said today.

Nilofar Bakhtiar, one of three women ministers in the Pakistani cabinet, made the parachute jump in March to raise money for victims of an earthquake that killed 73,000 people in Pakistan in October 2005.

Shortly afterwards, Pakistani newspapers published a photograph of her giving her para-jumping instructor a hug, and a pro-Taliban cleric issued a decree calling on the government to sack her for ''obscenity''.

''It is with deep regret that I want to relinquish the charge of the office of minister for tourism,'' Bakhtiar wrote in her letter of resignation to the prime minister. The letter was also faxed to newspapers.

''Despite my exceptional commitment to the cause of tourism in Pakistan, I have taken the decision due to unavoidable circumstances,'' she said without elaborating.

An official in Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz's office confirmed today that Bakhtiar had handed in her resignation but he said Aziz had yet to accept it.

Bakhtiar was not available for comment but a newspaper cited her as saying she had been hurt by the way her parachute jump was sensationalised.

''French media praised my daring attempt but unfortunately some irresponsible elements in Pakistan presented this noble cause in a malicious manner,'' she told the Dawn newspaper.

Bakhtiar had earlier shrugged off the cleric's criticism, saying she would do another jump for a good cause.

''We don't need to be intimidated by these people,'' she told Reuters Television in April.

''I have no regrets... I would do it again happily if it helps the people of Pakistan.'' But criticism from radical clerics is not to be taken lightly in Pakistan.

In February, a Muslim zealot shot dead a woman minister of the government of Punjab province because he thought women should not be in politics. The gunman was sentenced to death in March.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf promotes a vision of ''enlightened moderation'' for his country and has vowed to empower women but conservatives still hold much influence in the predominantly Muslim country and violence against women is rife.


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