Afghanistan's election commission on Friday postponed elections in Kandahar for a week, following a brazen attack on a high-profile security meeting there with a United States delegation. The attack killed at least two senior provincial officials, including the province's police chief.
The postponement came as mourners gathered for the funeral of police chief Gen. Abdul Raziq, assassinated in Thursday's attack. The Taliban have claimed responsibility for the assault, saying they targeted the top US commander in the country, Gen. Scott Miller, who was at the meeting but was unharmed.
The Independent Election Commission's deputy spokesman Aziz Ibrahimi said the postponement was meant to allow mourners to observe funeral rites for the slain officials.
Also killed in Thursday's attack was the Kandahar intelligence chief, Abdul Mohmin, but the condition of the province's governor, Zalmay Wesa, who was wounded, has been shrouded in mystery since the assault. Some reports say Mr. Wesa has been transferred to a NATO hospital outside Kandahar.
The Kandahar meeting, convened to discuss security plans for Saturday's parliamentary elections, had just concluded when an elite Afghan guard turned his gun on the departing delegation.
Two Afghan policemen were also killed and three were wounded in the attack, according to a Kandahar hospital official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to reporters.
Three Americans – a US service member, a coalition contractor, and an American civilian – were wounded and are now in stable condition, NATO said.
The funeral prayers for General Raziq, who had been credited with single-handedly keeping the Taliban at bay in a province the insurgents once considered their spiritual heartland, were being held Friday at Kandahar's most famous shrine, Khareq Mubarak, said to contain the cloak of the Prophet Muhammad.
A Kandahar lawmaker running for parliament, Khaled Pashtun, said the one-week postponement in the polling was meant to give voters who might have stayed at home on Saturday, afraid so soon after the attack, the chance to vote in the elections.
Nevertheless, the attack, more than 17 years after the Taliban were driven from power, underscores the harrowing insecurity in Afghanistan ahead of the elections.
According to an AP television cameraman who was at the meeting, the delegates had just gathered for a group photo when gunfire broke out inside the provincial governor's compound in Kandahar city. Everyone scattered, and the US participants scrambled toward their helicopter. But a firefight broke out between the US service members and Afghan police when they tried to stop the US delegation from reaching their helicopter, said the cameraman.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi said the militant group carried out the attack and that General Miller was the target.
But US Army Col. David Butler, who attended the meeting with Miller, said Raziq was clearly the target, not the US general. Colonel Butler said the assailant shot at Raziq and then appeared to spray the area with gunfire before he was killed.
He said Miller and the Afghan leaders had moved outside the palace after several hours of meetings and were standing in small groups in the compound. He said he heard several shots "and we all took cover. It was over in seconds."
Butler added that Miller made sure the scene was secure and the wounded were taken away by medivac before he left the area and returned to Kabul.
Raziq was a close US ally despite widespread allegations of corruption. He ruled Kandahar with an iron fist and had survived several past assassination attempts, including one last year that killed five diplomats from the United Arab Emirates.
The Taliban have vowed to disrupt Saturday's parliamentary elections, warning teachers and students not to allow schools to be used for polling and warning Afghans to stay away from the polls.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's adviser, Ziaulhaq Amarkhil, said the attack was meant to disrupt elections and urged voters to defy Taliban threats, saying casting their ballot "would be a big slap on the face of the enemy."
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the killing of the Kandahar police chief is unlikely to fundamentally weaken the security situation. Speaking while in Singapore for a conference on Thursday, Mr. Mattis called Raziq's death a tragic loss but said he believes the Afghan security forces have matured to the point where they can continue fighting the Taliban without him.
The United Nations Security Council condemned the attacks and others recently in Afghanistan and said violence or threats intended to disrupt the elections were unacceptable.
Pakistan closed its two official border crossings with Afghanistan, the foreign ministry said. The development came at the request of the Afghan government, which routinely accuses Pakistan of harboring Taliban militants, a charge Islamabad denies. The crossings would remain closed Friday and Saturday.
Security has been steadily deteriorating in Afghanistan with increasingly audacious attacks by insurgents and Afghanistan's security forces have been on high alert ahead of Saturday's elections.
This story was reported by The Associated Press.