Thousands of Afghans crowd into cemetery for powerful vice president's funeral

Thousands of Afghans waving flags and chanting crowded into a cemetery in Kabul on Tuesday after President Hamid Karzai presided over a funeral service for the country's powerful vice president.

Vice President Mohammad Qasim Fahim, who died on Sunday at 57, was an ethnic Tajik and a leading commander in the Northern Alliance, which battled the Taliban for years and helped the U.S. in ousting the Islamic militant movement from power in 2001. His death came a month before presidential elections to choose a successor to Karzai, who is barred from seeking a third term.

At a funeral service earlier in the presidential palace, Karzai lauded him for always promoting national interest.

"I lost my best friend and my brother," Karzai said, surrounded by tribal leaders and other Afghan dignitaries and foreign diplomats. "He was always with me in making important decisions on international and domestic issues."

The flag-covered coffin was then taken to a cemetery in Kabul, where thousands of people thronged the ambulance as it carried the body to the gravesite.

Fahim was an ethnic Tajik who was the top deputy of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the charismatic Northern Alliance commander who was killed in an al-Qaida suicide bombing two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

He was widely accused of marginalizing Pashtuns in the years after the Taliban were ousted, but later reconciled with Karzai and was widely considered somebody who could mediate between factions.

Karzai's office said Fahim — who held the rank of field marshal and had survived several assassination attempts, most recently in 2009 in northern Afghanistan — died of natural causes in Kabul.