The police chief and intelligence head of the southern Afghan province of Kandahar have been killed in a shooting attack, officials say, in a major blow to the Western-backed government in Kabul.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the October 18 assault in the provincial capital, also named Kandahar, which came just two days before parliamentary elections.
Afghan officials told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that a bodyguard opened fire after a high-level security meeting in the governor's compound.
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller, was present at the gathering but was unhurt, said NATO Resolute Support spokesman Grant Neely.
However, Kandahar Province's police chief General Abdul Raziq -- one of Afghanistan's most powerful commanders, with a fearsome reputation as an enemy of the Taliban -- and provincial intelligence head Abdul Momin Hassankhail were shot and killed.
“Today I lost a great friend Lt. Gen. Raziq. We had served together for many years. Afghanistan lost a patriot, my condolences to the people of Afghanistan. The good he did for Afghanistan and the Afghan people cannot be undone,” Colonel Dave Butler, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, quoted Miller as saying.
Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said he was “deeply saddened" by Raziq's death, whom he described as a "great patriot," a "close friend," and a "hero" of the war against terrorism.
An Afghan journalist working for state media also died in the attack, according to NAI, a group supporting open media in the country.
There were conflicting reports about the fate of Kandahar Governor Zalmai Wesa, with some reports saying he was also killed.
However, Deputy Interior Minister Akhtar Mohammad Ebrahimi said Wesa was wounded.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in a short speech confirmed the deaths of the police and intelligence chiefs, but didn't mention the governor.
Butler said "three Americans were wounded, have been medically evacuated and are stable."
He also said the gunman had been killed and that Afghan officials were the "target of the violence."
The Taliban claimed responsibility in a statement, saying, "The brutal police chief of Kandahar has been killed along several other officials."
"The target was General Miller and General Raziq," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Twitter.
A close ally of the U.S. military, Raziq, has been credited with pacifying large swaths of Kandahar but has been accused by human rights groups of gross human rights violations, including forcible disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings.
"We strongly condemn this terrorist attack & stand united in our unshaken resolve to fight terrorism. The struggle continues," Abdullah, Afghanistan's chief executive, wrote in a tweet.
Around 14,000 U.S. troops are currently in Afghanistan, and Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Kone Faulkner told the Reuters news agency that the attack in Kandahar "will not change U.S. resolve in our South Asia strategy, if anything it makes us more resolute."
The Pakistani military condemned the Kandahar “incident,” saying it wishes to see the "Afghan and other security forces succeeding to bring an end to this prolonged violence in Afghanistan."
"Peace in Afghanistan is essential for peace in the region. Support all initiatives towards this end,” it added.
Afghanistan is on high alert ahead of the long-delayed parliamentary elections on October 20, after the Taliban pledged to block the vote.
More than 2,500 candidates are competing for 249 seats in the lower house of parliament.
The run-up to the elections has been marred by deadly militant attacks and targeted killings of candidates, 10 of whom have been killed so far.
With reporting by Reuters and AFP