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Hundreds mourn slain Afghan peace negotiator

Hundreds of people on Monday mourned the death of a former high-ranking Taliban official who had reconciled with the Afghan government and was trying to bring peace to his homeland.

A gunman in a car assassinated Arsala Rahmani on Sunday, dealing a powerful blow to the fragile, U.S.-backed effort to negotiate a political resolution to the more than decade-long war.

It was the second killing of a prominent member of the government-appointed peace council set up to reach out to insurgents. In September 2011, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, the counci's head, was assassinated in his Kabul home by a suicide bomber posing as a peace emissary from the Taliban.

A military honor guard carried Rahmani's coffin, covered in a black cloth with verses of the Quran embroidered on it in gold, to a cemetery in the Afghan capital. Wreaths of flowers bore a photograph of the slain negotiator.

"We are all so sad for his death," said Shahzada Shahid, another member of the peace council.

"Rahmani had no personal dispute with anyone who would want to kill him," Shahid said. "He was working for the peace process, security and unity of the Afghans. ... It's been a series of killings of our countrymen. Elders, religious leaders, politicians, teachers, engineers and even businessmen are the victims."

Police said an assassin with a silencer-equipped pistol shot Rahmani, who was in his 70s, as he was riding in his car in one of the capital's most secure areas, near Kabul University. The gunman fired from a white Toyota Corolla that pulled up alongside Rahmani's vehicle at an intersection. Rahmani's driver rushed him to a hospital, but he died on the way, police said. Kabul police said Monday that no one has been arrested.

Rahmani was a former deputy minister of higher education in the Taliban regime that was ousted by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. He eventually reconciled with the government and was appointed to a seat in the upper house of parliament before joining the council.

The Taliban denied responsibility for Rahmani's killing, although they had publicly threatened to target peace negotiators and others working with the government.

The targeting of negotiators may represent divisions in the movement over peace talks.

Agha Jan Motasim, a member of the Taliban's leadership council, told The Associated Press on Sunday in a telephone interview that the movement was split between those who want a peace settlement and others who wish to keep fighting.

He lamented Rahmani's death and said the slain negotiator was a "nationalist" who the Taliban respected. Motasim himself survived an assassination attempt in August that he said may have been carried out by hard-liners opposed to his advocacy of a unity government.

Separately, a bomb exploded Monday at a market in northern Afghanistan, killing nine people, including a local official, officials said.

The Ministry of Interior said the bomb went off in the morning inside a shop in Faryab province's Ghormach district. The ministry's statement said the nine dead included a council member from neighboring Badghis province.

On Sunday night in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, Taliban fighters attacked at least three Afghan police compounds in Musa Qala district, said Fareed Ahmad, a spokesman for the Helmand provincial police. In the various battles, which each lasted about four hours, more than a dozen militants, an Afghan policeman and an Afghan soldier were killed.

Fighting in Afghanistan has mostly been centered in the south and east, along the border with Pakistan, but has spread to the once-peaceful north in recent years.

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Associated Press writer Mirwais Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.