KABUL Gunmen killed an adviser to Afghan President Hamid Karzai in a gunbattle in Kabul on Sunday, officials said, hours after a long-promised transition process from foreign troops to Afghan control began under a shroud of secrecy.
The attack on the Kabul home of Jan Mohammad Khan, a former governor of Uruzgan province in Afghanistan's volatile south, came days after the killing of Ahmad Wali Karzai, a half-brother of President Hamid Karzai, in southern Kandahar province.
The assassination of Ahmad Wali Karzai, the most powerful man in Kandahar, left a dangerous political vacuum in the Taliban's heartland in the south and sent a chilling warning to other political leaders about the reach of the Taliban.
"This is another blow," a senior Western diplomat, who asked not to be identified, said soon after the attack on Khan's house on Sunday night.
Violence has spiked across Afghanistan in the past year even as NATO-led troops made gains against insurgents in the south, with civilian and military deaths at record levels.
Even as their strength has been diminished, Taliban and other insurgents have shown a remarkable adaptability, changing their tactics despite significant losses.
Barely three weeks ago, up to nine Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers killed 12 people in a night-time attack on Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel, a raid lasting five hours that ended only when NATO helicopters counter-attacked.
The attacks on high-profile Afghans and other targets also came days after a U.N report found that the first six months of 2011 had been the deadliest six months for civilians since the Taliban were toppled by U.S-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.
Afghan MP Hashim Watanwal was also killed in Sunday night's attack, said Hashmat Stanekzai, a spokesman for the Kabul police chief. Obaidullah Barekzai, a lawmaker from Uruzgan, said he had seen the bodies of Khan and Watanwal being carried from Khan's home.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
"In this operation two suicide bombers were involved," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement, claiming some of Khan's bodyguards were also killed. He accused Khan of helping "the Americans and committing atrocities against the Afghan people."
Afghanistan began on Sunday a gradual transfer of security responsibility from foreign forces to Afghans, with a low-key ceremony held with little fanfare in the relatively safe province of Bamiyan.
Bamiyan is one of seven areas that will be handed to Afghan forces in the first phase of a process that will end with all foreign combat troops leaving Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Stanekzai said the gun battle at Khan's house began shortly after 8.00 p.m. (1530 GMT). Gunfire could still be heard hours later in a district which is home to the parliament, many Afghan politicians and media and some embassies, witnesses said.
Afghan troops rushed to secure the area and streets leading to Khan's home were cordoned off, with electricity shut down, witnesses said.
The attack was the second night raid within weeks after Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers targeted the Intercontinental, a hotel frequented by Westerners and Afghan government officials.
Previously, Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan have rarely attacked at night, although in the past 12 months they have sought to show an ability to adapt their tactics after NATO-led forces made significant tactical gains in the south in the past 18 months.
Sunday's attack came just hours after a somewhat shambolic start to a much-vaunted transition process. Bamiyan became the first area to be handed over officially, although secrecy around the ceremony underscored how tense Afghanistan remains.
Afghan ministers flew to central Bamiyan province, one of the most peaceful places in Afghanistan, for a ceremony that was not announced in advance, did not run live on any TV channel and to which few media outlets were invited.
After foreign officials were flown out by helicopters, Afghan dignitaries were left stranded in Bamiyan for the night after the aircraft designated to return them home broke down, a senior security source said.
The Taliban have threatened to target transition events, and attacks have been a serious security concern for weeks. Sunday's ceremony finished without any incidents.
New Zealand forces handed responsibility for Bamiyan over to Afghan police, marking the first official step in the process.
The change is critical to Afghanistan's long-term security at a time when Western nations are wearying of the cost in lives and cash of the near decade-long war, both the Afghan government and its Western backers say.
"The start of transition is the first step in Afghan forces and Afghan people taking care of their own destiny," said Waheed Omer, spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Bamiyan was in the public eye in 2001 when the Taliban blew up two giant Buddhist statues that were nearly 1,500 years old, triggering complaints from around the world.
Karzai did not attend the ceremony. Key ministries, the commission in charge of transition, and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force sought to play down the event, saying it was part of a long process.
"After AWK (Ahmad Wali Karzai)'s assassination, these top ministers are worried about who is next," said analyst Haroun Mir, who welcomed the move toward Afghan control but warned that Bamiyan was not a template for the rest of the country.
"This is the beginning of a new era for the Afghan government, taking on (security) responsibility, but Bamiyan is probably the safest province in the country."
(Writing by Paul Tait; editing by Myra MacDonald)