The mayor of Afghanistan's southern city of Kandahar has been killed by a suicide bomber in the latest in a spate of attacks targeting key local officials within the power base of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government.
Mayor Ghulam Haydar Hamidi and an unidentified civilian died in the attack, which took place at his office compound in the heart of the embattled province that has been a Taliban stronghold.
A spokesman for the provincial governor told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Sadiq Reshtinai that the bomber entered the courtyard of the Kandahar city hall by pretending he was with a group of tribal elders who were there to discuss a land dispute with the mayor.
The assailant reportedly had explosives hidden in his turban and detonated them after requesting a meeting with the mayor.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi said by telephone from an undisclosed location that the suicide bomber was a Taliban fighter. Ahmadi said the bomber took revenge for the deaths on July 26 of two Afghan children involved in the land dispute.
Earlier this week, the mayor was said to have ordered the demolition of several houses in Kandahar on grounds that they had been illegally built. Kandahar police have confirmed that two children were killed and a woman was injured -- all members of one family -- when a house collapsed on them during the demolition work.
Police said the three had been resisting the demolition order, and that the suicide bomber is thought to have been a member of their family.
A statement issued by the Kandahar governor's office said one civilian was also killed by the explosion.
President Hamid Karzai denounced the assassination in a statement, saying, "The enemies of the people and country martyred a man this morning who spared no effort, day and night, to reconstruct the country, and he lost his life on this path."
New U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, who was giving his first briefing at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, said the killing was indicative of challenges the country must meet.
"We condemn in the strongest possible terms the assassination of another senior Afghan government official. Our condolences are with his family and with the government and people of Afghanistan," Crocker said, adding that it was "another indication again of both the challenges that Afghanistan faces, but also the extraordinary resilience of the Afghan government and people."
Rising Violence In South
Hamidi's death comes just days after NATO handed over responsibility for security operations to Afghan forces in neighboring Helmand Province and six other areas of the country.
Since that handover began, southern Afghanistan in particular has seen a sharp rise in attacks against provincial officials who are key allies of President Karzai.
Ahmad Wali Karzai, the head of Kandahar's provincial council and the president's half-brother, was shot dead by a bodyguard at his home in Kandahar early this month. The Taliban claims it convinced the guard to carry out that assassination.
It was a serious blow to President Karzai, whose brother was seen as key for Afghan and NATO operations in the Taliban's southern stronghold.
The death of Ahmad Wali Karzai -- who was a powerbroker in much of southern Afghanistan -- set off a power struggle in Kandahar and has raised doubts about the strength of the president's support in the area. It also has raised concerns about a growing power vacuum in Kandahar.
Kandahar is home to the Karzai clan, but it also is a stronghold for Taliban fighters and a hotbed of tribal rivalries over local influence and money.
The surge in attacks against key Afghan individuals hasn't been limited to southern Afghanistan.
Last week, insurgent gunmen wearing explosives stormed the home in western Kabul of Jan Mohammad Khan, the former governor of Oruzgan Province. He was killed along with Mohammad Hasham Watanwal, a member of parliament from Oruzgan.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for Khan's death, saying he was targeted for helping NATO forces carry out raids against Afghans.
Today, U.S. Ambassador Crocker called the recent killings "horrific," but said, "I don't think you can chart a straight line that says that three assassinations guarantees a total unraveling either of international support or Afghan confidence."
written by Ron Synovitz based on RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan and agency reports