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Key Afghanistan peace envoy, Mawlawi Arsala Rahmani, gunned down in Kabul

Unknown assailants on Sunday shot and killed a senior Afghan peace negotiator, government officials said, in the latest major blow to President Hamid Karzai’s two-year-old effort to negotiate a truce with insurgents.

The peace envoy, Mawlawi Arsala Rahmani, a former minister in the deposed Taliban government, was on his way to work Sunday morning when a car stopped next to his vehicle in western Kabul. A gunman opened fire and killed him with a silencer-equipped weapon, said Mohammad Zahir, the head of Kabul police’s criminal investigation division.

“The bullet hit Rahmani’s heart, so he passed away a few seconds after he was shot,” Zahir said.

A spokesman for Karzai, Aimal Faizy, told a press conference that the attack was carried out by “enemies of the country who are against peace, stability and prosperity in Afghanistan.”

The Taliban, which had previously vowed to target members of the High Peace Council as part of their spring offensive, which they have dubbed “al Farooq,” denied that their men had carried out the attack.

“The Mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate have no hand in his assassination,” said Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, using the group’s official name. “We deny any kind of involvement.”

Rahmani had been a key figure in negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Perceived as a relative moderate, he reconciled with the Afghan government and Karzai appointed him two times as a senator to the upper house of Parliament. He was chair of the peace council’s committee on political prisoners and was seen as the main negotiator in efforts to get the Taliban’s detainees released from U.S. military prisons.

In a statement, the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force, condemned the killing and praised Rahmani, saying that he “chose to make a positive contribution to his nation by turning his back on an insurgent movement that continues to be wholly detrimental to the future of Afghanistan. His decision to help make the future brighter for Afghans serves as an inspiration to us all and his contributions will be missed.”

Last July, the United Nations Security Council dropped Rahmani’s name along with other former Taliban officials from a blacklist of individuals who were believed to be tied to al Qaida.

The 70-member High Peace Council was established by Karzai in 2010 to lead negotiations with the Taliban. The head of the council, Burhanuddin Rabbani, was killed in his home by a suicide bomber last September. Last month, Rabbani’s eldest son was chosen as the new head of the council to revive a peace effort that was widely seen as failing following Rabbani’s killing and an announcement by the Taliban in March that they were suspending contacts with U.S. officials on opening negotiations on a political settlement.

Another member of high peace council and former Taliban official, Mawlawi Qalamuddin, said that he didn’t believe that the Taliban were behind Rahmani’s killing.

“The Taliban have legitimate causes for fighting. They didn’t kill Rahmani. The enemies of Afghanistan and peace killed him,” Qalamuddin said.

In another incident Sunday, two ISAF service members died following an improvised explosive device attack in eastern Afghanistan today, a coalition statement said.

Also, the Afghan government on Sunday announced the third phase of areas where security responsibilities will be transferred from coalition forces to Afghan troops. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, the chief of the transition process, said that when the third phase is completed 75 percent of the Afghan population and the capitals of all 34 provinces will be under the control of Afghan security forces.

The announcement came as Afghan and U.S. officials prepare to meet in Chicago next week at a NATO summit that will discuss the future of Afghan security forces beyond 2014, when U.S. and coalition combat troops will stand down.

(Safi is a McClatchy special correspondent.)