Kabul: Afghan Vice-President Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, formerly one of the country's most feared warlords, died of natural causes on Sunday after a turbulent life that reflected the country's recent past.
Fahim, a leader of the Tajik ethnic minority, was senior vice-president under President Hamid Karzai, who will step down at elections next month as US-led combat forces pull out of Afghanistan after 13 years of fighting the Taliban.
Fahim, who survived at least two assassination attempts, died from complications caused by diabetes and heart problems, according to officials who declined to be named.
Aged 56, Fahim was accused of being a ruthless strongman who maintained his own militia forces, but he also received American support as Afghanistan struggled for stability following the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.
"With extreme sorrow, Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, the first vice-president of Afghanistan, passed away due to an illness," the presidential palace said in a statement.
It said that President Karzai expressed his deep condolences over the "uncompensable loss" of "a patriot and a great mujahid (holy warrior)".
Three days of national mourning will begin from Monday, with the national flag flying at half-mast across the country in the middle of election campaigning before polling day on April 5.
Fahim served as an influential but brutal intelligence officer under iconic rebel commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, fighting against the Soviet occupation in 1980s and against the Taliban's 1996-2001 regime.
Massoud was killed by an Al-Qaeda bomb two days before the 9/11 attacks in the United States in 2001.
The Taliban were then ousted in a US-led operation for sheltering Al-Qaeda -- and Fahim emerged as a leading figure in Afghan politics during the international military and civilian intervention that is now winding down.
With strong backing from Washington, Fahim was appointed to the key position of defence minister in 2002, where he was criticised for appointing mainly Tajik senior officers and failing to build a representative national army.
He also served as a vice-president from 2002-2004, but was removed by Karzai from both jobs in 2004 in one of the many power struggles that have undermined efforts to develop the war-torn and impoverished country.
- 'Blood on his hands' -
Fahim returned as senior vice-president in the 2009 election as Karzai sought to broaden his support base in a policy that was widely seen as appeasing some of most violent men in Afghanistan.
At the time, the Human Watch Rights group described Fahim as "one of the most notorious warlords in the country, with the blood of many Afghans on his hands".
The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan released this year said he was accused of being "a semi-literate, self-appointed field marshal, and one of the principal obstacles to Afghan unity because of his alleged ruthless threats, beatings and general thuggery".
But the United Nations struck a different note on Sunday, saying that Fahim had been "a good and trusted partner" of the UN mission in Afghanistan.
Fahim was famous for his love of "buzkashi", the rough and hugely popular Afghan sport in which horse-riders wrestle over a headless dead calf and try to drop the animal into a chalk circle.
He became extremely wealthy and used his cash to maintain a large stable of buzkashi horses, a move that helped him retain loyal support in the Panjshir valley where he was raised and where the sport is closely followed.
He also owned extensive property in the capital Kabul, which he was often accused of obtaining through extortion or corruption.
He had not publicly backed any candidate in the election and his death is likely to have a limited impact on the vote to choose a successor to Karzai, who is constitutionally barred from standing for a third term in office.
Candidates including Zalmai Rassoul and Ashraf Ghani were among those to pay their respects at Fahim's house, where his body was laid out wrapped in an embroidered gold robe....