KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The mayor of Kandahar, a close ally of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, was assassinated in a suicide attack Wednesday -- the latest in a string of political murders in the key southern region.
The killing came two weeks after Karzai's powerful brother was shot dead in the city and is a further setback for US-led efforts to control the Taliban's spiritual home as foreign troops start to withdraw.
The suicide bomber detonated explosives hidden in his turban and killed mayor Ghulam Haidar Hameedi, who was talking to locals in the courtyard of Kandahar's city hall, police chief Abdul Razeq told AFP.
Those involved in the talks said Hameedi had been discussing a land dispute with residents after he ordered the destruction of illegally built homes and two children reportedly died during demolition work on Tuesday.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the bombing, saying that a volunteer suicide attacker had come forward after the deaths of the children.
Karzai condemned the killing of his ally, who had a rare reputation for resisting corruption in the volatile region.
"The enemies of the people and country martyred a man this morning who spared no effort, day and night, to reconstruct the country and lost his life on this path," said Karzai in a statement from his palace.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force praised Hameedi as a "strong leader and voice for a terror-free and progressive Afghanistan" and said it would work with local forces to bring those responsible to justice.
The 65-year-old mayor leaves behind five daughters and two sons.
Kandahar, home to Karzai's family and scene of some of the war's bloodiest fighting over the course of a decade, is a hotbed of tribal rivalries over local influence and money.
Kandahar-based analyst Yunos Fakoor said the death of Hameedi, who had lived for years in the United States until he took his post in 2006, was another blow to the president's support base in the south.
"(He) was under direct support of the Karzai brothers. Kandahar-wise, it is again another big loss for President Karzai," said Fakoor.
Hameedi escaped an attack on his car in 2009, though his last two deputy mayors were both shot dead in 2010, and the Kandahar province police chief and its deputy governor have also been killed this year.
The president's half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, known as the "king of Kandahar" was shot dead in his home in the city by a close friend two weeks ago, in a killing also claimed by the insurgent group.
Wali Karzai's death was followed a few days later by the assassination of Jan Mohammad Khan, a senior adviser to Karzai and the former governor of the southern province of Uruzgan.
The new US ambassador to Kabul, Ryan Crocker, condemned the mayor's death as "horrific", but said the string of assassinations did not signal defeat for coalition efforts in Kandahar.
Comparing the recent violence to political killings during his tenure as ambassador in Iraq, Crocker said assassinations could reflect the Taliban's inability to mount more organised attacks.
"Afghans are pretty tough people and it may well be that their reaction to all this is to get pretty pissed off if they perceive that it's the Taliban trying to undo the progress that's been made," Crocker told reporters.
With no obvious successor to Wali Karzai, who pinned together the area's corrupt commercial, political and security networks, there are forecasts that recent security gains made by foreign troops could be reversed.
The avowedly anti-Taliban Wali Karzai maintained an uneasy alliance with US forces and he allegedly informed for the CIA, but he was accused of being a corrupt authoritarian who controlled much the area's militia and drug trade.
In northeastern Kapisa province, three Afghan civilians were shot dead and three wounded when a French soldier opened fire on their vehicle after it failed to stop on request, the French military said, apologising for the deaths.
The Afghan presidency condemned the incident that took place Tuesday night and urged NATO troops to take more care to avoid casualties of civilians -- by far the greatest victims of the nearly 10-year war.
The latest incidents come after the first phase of security transitions from foreign to local forces' control. Seven parts of the country were ceremonially handed over to Afghan forces last week.
Critics have said the process is premature because Afghan forces are not ready to hold off the Taliban, and they say it is motivated by a political timetable as coalition nations start to bring some of their troops home.
All Western combat troops are due to leave by the end of 2014.
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