KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — President Hamid Karzai climbed into his slain half-brother's grave Wednesday and sobbed alongside the coffin, mourning the loss of the most powerful figure in southern Afghanistan before appointing another brother to take the man's place.
Ahmed Wali Karzai, the head of the Kandahar provincial council and the president's most powerful emissary in the south, was shot to death Tuesday by a trusted friend at his mansion in Kandahar.
"My message for them (the Taliban) is that my countrymen, my brothers, should stop killing their own people," President Karzai said after the funeral, which was attended by thousands of mourners. "It is easy to kill and everyone can do it, but the real man is the one who can save people's lives."
Just hours later, a suicide bomb blast killed five French troops in the east of the country.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for both attacks. But Afghan officials cast doubt that the militants really were behind the killing of the president's brother. The gunman's motive remained unclear.
Shortly after the funeral, Karzai named another sibling, Shah Wali Karzai, to replace Wali Karzai. The move signaled the importance of continuity in a country where power vacuums are often filled with violent confrontations. Still, the new tribal elder is a relative unknown, and it was unclear if will be as able an operator as Wali Karzai.
"The president will have to be very careful to move quickly to consolidate and maintain his power structure in Kandahar," said Rustam Shah, former Pakistan ambassador to Afghanistan.
He said Wali Karzai's death exposed the fragility of the security infrastructure in the southern provinces, particularly Kandahar, where the Americans have made progress in wresting territory from the Taliban.
"It will be a big blow to the government's image in the Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan," he said.
Wali Karzai served as the enforcer of the government's tenuous rule over the ethnic Pashtuns, who also dominate the insurgency.
To the international community, he offered indispensable reach and ruthlessness, but he was also an embarrassment — a partner whose other partners were said to include opium dealers and smugglers. He denied those charges.
"He appears not to understand the level of our knowledge of his activities," reads a confidential 2010 U.S. State Department cable posted on Wikileaks, "and that the coalition views many of his activities as malign."
Thousands of mourners gathered Wednesday morning in the Karzai family's home village of Karz. Pushing through a ring of his security men, Karzai climbed into his half brother's freshly dug grave Wednesday and sobbed.
When the president's relatives and bodyguards urged him to come out, he refused. Finally, two pallbearers locked his arms under theirs and pulled him up.
Ahmed Wali's assassin, Sardar Mohammad, was an elder in their tribe. He worked beside Wali Karzai for seven years as his security adviser and his representative to various power interests in the south.
After Mohammad opened fire on Wali Karzai, bodyguards ran in and killed him.
Mohammad's corpse was later photographed hanging from a building in a public intersection.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid issued a statement Wednesday saying that insurgent fighters killed Wali Karzai because he cooperated with U.S., British and Canadian forces in the south.
Afghan security forces were a conspicuous presence at the burial Wednesday, with troops and intelligence agents dispersed around and within the crowd.
Despite heightened security, two members of the Afghan intelligence service were injured on their way to the funeral Wednesday when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb in Kandahar's Maiwand district, said Daoud Ahmadi, a spokesman for the governor of Helmand.
Moore reported from Kabul. Associated Press writers Kathy Gannon in Islamabad and Adam Goldman in Washington contributed to this report.