By Adrian Croft
LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Insurgents launched attacks in important cities in Afghanistan's north and south on Wednesday just as security control was being handed over in another city as part of a process designed to showcase the strength of Afghan forces.
Gunmen attacked a police station in southern Kandahar city and killed its commander during a nine-hour gun battle.
In northern Mazar-i-Sharif -- one of seven areas to be handed over to Afghan control this week -- a bomb planted on a bicycle killed five civilians, including a child, and wounded 12, police said.
The attacks in volatile Kandahar and in Mazar-i-Sharif were a reminder of the challenges awaiting Afghanistan's army and police as they kick off a slow transition process that aims to put them in control of the whole country by the end of 2014.
"Three policemen were killed and six more wounded when two gunmen attacked police district one," Abdul Razziq, chief of police in Kandahar province, said after the fighting ended.
The two Taliban gunmen were killed and the attack was over by late morning, although police were combing the station to check no other insurgents were hiding there, he said.
Soon after the Kandahar attack, the Afghan police and army took control of security in Lashkar Gah, the capital of neighboring Helmand province and the most contentious of the seven areas to be handed over this week.
Mazar-i-Sharif is due to be handed over on Saturday.
President Hamid Karzai has long said he wants Afghanistan to provide its own security. Western nations, tired of the cost of the war in lives and money, are racing to beef up Afghan forces so that their troops to return home.
However, worsening violence in recent days has cast a shadow over the start of the transition process. On Tuesday, a bomb exploded near a police station outside Lashkar Gah.
Both Afghan and foreign officials acknowledge there will be little real change on the ground, after a months-long "soft opening" when Afghans were already in effective control.
But Helmand has been the site of some of the most vicious fighting of the near-decade long war. Far more foreign troops have died there than in any other province and there are still several Helmand districts dominated by the Taliban.
Transferring the capital is meant to give a signal that Afghan forces are ready and willing to take over in areas more challenging than the anti-Taliban provinces of Bamiyan and Panjshir, which are also in the first phase of transition.
"It's a very historic and important day," Afghan Army Colonel Amin Jan told reporters before the handover ceremony in Lashkar Gah.
"We are confident and our forces are capable of doing it, to take responsibility ... this is just the beginning."
Like many others, however, Jan questioned whether the plan for foreign combat troops to leave by the end of 2014, proposed by Karzai and agreed at a NATO summit in December 2010, was too short a timeframe.
"Four years is a very short time. We still lack some equipment," Jan said.
A civil ceremony with speeches in Lashkar Gah was followed by a military ceremony, at the end of which NATO troops will took a salute as a symbolic departure. But they will remain in bases a few kilometers away from the city, ready to help out during major crises.
Security provided by Afghan forces was tight, after Taliban threats to disrupt the transition ceremonies and a string of attacks and assassinations across the country.
"Today I am especially proud that the people of Helmand, like the other places in Afghanistan, are starting to take control of this beautiful province," Helmand governor Gulab Mangal said in an open letter in which he thanked foreign troops for their assistance and sacrifices.
(Additional reporting by Ismail Khan in KANDAHAR, Bashir Ansari in MAZAR-I-SHARIF and Mirwais Harooni and Emma Graham-Harrison in KABUL; Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Sugita Katyal)