The Taliban is claiming responsibility for the slaying of President Hamid Karzai's half brother, the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan and a lightning rod for criticism of corruption in the government.

Ahmed Wali Karzai, the head of the Kandahar provincial council, was shot to death while receiving guests at his home in Kandahar, the capital of the province that was the birthplace of the Taliban movement and was the site of a recent U.S.-led offensive.

His death leaves a dangerous power vacuum in the south just as the government has begun peace talks with insurgents ahead of a U.S. withdrawal.

Who was Ahmed Wali Karzai?

  • He headed the Kandahar provincial council.
  • In 2009, Karzai had been on the Central Intelligence Agency's payroll for the previous eight years, the New York Times reported.
  • He helped  the CIA operate a paramilitary group, the Kandahar Strike Force, that is used for raids against suspected insurgents and terrorists.
  • Karzai was also paid for allowing the CIA and American Special Operations troops to rent a large compound outside the city, which also is the base of the Kandahar Strike Force. Karzai also helped the CIA communicate with, and sometimes meet with, Afghans loyal to the Taliban.
  • A  suspected player in the country's illegal opium trade, he had created deep divisions within the Obama administration.
  • A central figure in the south of the country where the Taliban is dominant, he undermined the U.S. push to develop an effective central government that could maintain law and order and eventually allow the United States to withdraw.
  • Karzai denied all of the allegations.

Tooryalai Wesa, the provincial governor of Kandahar, identified the assassin as Sardar Mohammad and said he was a close, "trustworthy" person who had gone to Wali Karzai's house to get him to sign some papers.

As Wali Karzai was signing the papers, the assassin "took out a pistol and shot him with two bullets -- one in the forehead and one in the chest," Wesa said. "Another patriot to the Afghan nation was martyred by the enemies of Afghanistan."

The killing coincided with a visit to the capital, Kabul, by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

"This morning my younger brother Ahmed Wali Karzai was murdered in his home," the Afghan president said during a joint news conference with Sarkozy. "Such is the life of Afghanistan's people. In the houses of the people of Afghanistan, each of us is suffering and our hope is, God willing, to remove this suffering from the people of Afghanistan and implement peace and stability."

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the assassination at the heavily guarded house, hidden behind 2.5 metre blast walls. The Interior Ministry said an investigation was under way.

Wali Karzai, who was in his 50s and had survived several previous assassination attempts, was seen by many as a political liability for the Karzai government after a series of allegations, including that he was on the CIA payroll and involved in drug trafficking. He denied the charges.

The president repeatedly challenged his accusers to show him evidence of his sibling's wrongdoing, but said nobody ever could.

Wali Karzai remained a key power broker in the south, helping shore up his family's interests in the Taliban's southern heartland, which has been the site of numerous offensives by U.S., coalition and Afghan troops to root out insurgents.