KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A suicide attacker who appears to have concealed his explosives inside a turban killed a senior cleric and at least four other people on Thursday at a funeral service for the assassinated brother of the Afghan president in southern Kandahar city.
At least 15 people were also wounded in the midday attack at the city's Red Mosque, the Interior Ministry said. Cabinet ministers and relatives of President Hamid Karzai had been among the mourners, but escaped unscathed.
The attack came just two days after a trusted family associate killed Ahmad Wali Karzai, probably the most powerful and controversial man in southern Afghanistan, at his home.
His death has created a dangerous power vacuum in Kandahar, that some fear could spark a wave of greater violence in an already volatile city. Kandahar was the site of over half of all targeted killings in Afghanistan between April and June.
A weeping Karzai buried his brother Wednesday and moved swiftly to give another brother a key tribal role left vacant, in an apparent attempt to pre-empt political infighting.
President Karzai had returned to Kabul after the burial so was not at the service, his spokesman Waheed Omer said. Omer added that the bomber appeared to have hidden the explosives in his turban.
"Among the dead was the head of the provincial Ulema Council, Hikmatullah Hikmat," the Interior Ministry said in a statement, adding that another of the five victims was a child.
An Ulema Council is an influential body of clerics that regulates religious issues.
Ambulances and vehicles used by senior officials rushed to the city's Red Mosque after the blast, and security officials scrambled to block off nearby roads.
A spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said security operations following the blast in Kandahar were being led by Afghan forces but that ISAF was providing air support helicopters at their request.
The attack came on the same day that the United Nations said the first half of 2011 was the deadliest six months for civilians in Afghanistan since the decade-old war began, and while the number of insurgent suicide attacks was largely unchanged, the number of civilians they killed soared by half.
Insurgents who have been squeezed in some of their traditional heartlands have tried spectacular urban attacks to underline their reach as NATO troops race to prepare Afghan forces for a security handover which begins this year.
"Suicide attacks in 2011 have become more complex, often using multiple bombers in spectacular attacks that kill many Afghan civilians," found the report.
Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf told Reuters he had no information about the Kandahar attack.
Religion is at the core of the group's ideology and they have in the past denied any role in attacks on religious sites, even when they appear to further their military strategy.
But targeting funerals and mosques is a tactic that has been used before in other parts of the country, and insurgent networks are the only groups fighting in Afghanistan that use suicide bombers.
Services tend to bring together large numbers of prominent figures, and can be difficult to police as they also attract hundreds, or even thousands of ordinary Afghans.
Last month, a suicide bomber attacked a memorial service for the assassinated police chief for northern Afghanistan, General Dawood Dawood, killing at least four policemen. The Taliban denied responsibility for that attack.
In October, the governor of northern Kunduz province was killed along with at least a dozen others, when a bomb ripped through the mosque where they were praying. It was the most high-profile attack in over a year and also killed the imam.
In July 2010, a candidate for Afghanistan's September parliamentary elections was killed and 20 others wounded by a bomb planted in a mosque in southeastern Khost province.
Fifteen insurgents were killed the previous month by the premature explosion of a bomb they were assembling at a mosque in southeastern Paktika province.
Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi and Jonathon Burch in KABUL, writing by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Sugita Katyal