Afghan President Karzai's half-brother killed

A brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and one of the most powerful men in southern Afghanistan was shot dead at his home today, apparently by a senior and highly trusted bodyguard, officials said.

Ahmad Wali Karzai was a controversial figure, but his assassination will leave a dangerous power vacuum in Kandahar, the Taliban's birthplace and a focus of recent efforts by a "surge" of US troops to turn the tide against the insurgency.

He also played a critical role in shoring up his brother's influence in the south, and President Karzai may find his reach there is now limited.

"My younger brother was martyred in his house today. This is the life of all Afghan people. I hope these miseries which every Afghan family faces will one day end," Karzai said at a news conference in Kabul. He gave no more details.

Ahmad Wali Karzai was shot dead by Sardar Mohammad, a senior member of his security detail who once guarded the president, a source at the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan's intelligence agency, told Reuters.

"Sardar Mohammad was a senior bodyguard to Wali Karzai and highly trusted. He had been with Karzai's family for the last ten years," the source said, adding Ahmad Wali Karzai had died almost instantly because he was shot in the head and chest.

Mohammad was shot dead by other bodyguards moments after opening fire, the source said.

The killing cast a pall over the city of Kandahar. Police had set up extra checkpoints, security forces flooded into the city and shops were closed down in the central areas.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for one of the most high-profile assassinations of the last decade after news of his death became public. They have in the past taken responsibility for attacks that security services question their role in.

Years in power and his sometimes ruthless operating methods meant there might be many other people keen to target Karzai who was often known simply by his initials, AWK.

"I'm not sure whether I would assume that this was the Taliban because he had a lot of enemies down there," said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

Officials in Kabul and Kandahar declined comment on whether they thought the killing was personal, connected to the insurgency or driven by other grievances.

Ahmad Wali Karzai had survived several other assassination attempts. He said in May 2009 he had been ambushed on the road to Kabul by Taliban insurgents who killed one of his bodyguards.

In November 2008, he escaped unscathed from an attack on government buildings in his home province which killed six, and in 2003 there was an explosion outside his home.

A half brother of the president, Ahmad Wali Karzai returned to Afghanistan after the ouster of the Taliban government, leaving behind a career as a restaurateur in Chicago to eventually become probably the most powerful man in Kandahar.

His power came not from his position as head of the provincial council - a largely consultative role which normally carries limited influence - but from his tribal and family connections and the fortune he accumulated.

He had been accused of corruption and ties to Afghanistan's huge opium trade that helps fund the Taliban-led insurgency. Ahmad Wali Karzai had strongly denied the accusations.

Foreign officials saw him as a polarising figure who could complicate their efforts to win over the population and supplant the Taliban by bringing improvements to the way the province is governed.

But they also recognised his huge reach and worked closely with him despite misgivings.

"I'm certain that the killing of AWK will have profound political consequences, but it is too early to assess this more concretely now," said a senior Western diplomat in Kabul, who asked not to be named.

"We need to know more about the underlying motives of the killing and which actors now will move in to fill the lacuna after AWK."