Afghan leader hails 'security' in rare appearance to mark Eid Al Fitr

Taliban chief Hibatullah Akhundzada makes second public appearance in six years, at Kandahar mosque

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Afghanistan's supreme leader appeared publicly for only the second time in six years on Sunday, telling worshippers celebrating Eid Al Fitr that the Taliban had achieved freedom and security since seizing power last year.

Two days after a bomb ripped through a mosque in Kabul, an atmosphere of heightened security surrounded the man introduced as Hibatullah Akhundzada, the chief of the Taliban.

"Congratulations on victory, freedom and success," he told thousands of worshippers at the Eidgah mosque in the southern city of Kandahar, the hardline group's power centre.

"Congratulations on this security and for the Islamic system."

While the number of bombings across Afghanistan dropped since Kabul fell to the Taliban last August, attacks soared over the final two weeks of Ramadan, which ended on Saturday for Afghans.

Dozens of civilians have been killed in the mainly sectarian attacks, some claimed by ISIS, against members of the Shiite and Sufi communities.

Friday's bombing of a Sunni mosque in the capital killed at least 10 people.

Mr Akhundzada delivered his brief address from one of the front rows of worshippers in Kandahar without turning to face the crowd, social media posts said.

Taliban officials did not allow journalists to approach him, while two helicopters hovered over the mosque for the two-hour event.

Dozens of Taliban fighters were posted to where Mr Akhundzada and other Taliban leaders were sitting, and they stopped worshippers from taking their pictures on mobile phones.

An AFP correspondent at the mosque said the voice claimed to be Mr Akhundzada's came from the front rows of worshippers.

When the man introduced as the Taliban leader began to speak, worshippers chanted: "Allahu Akbar. Long live Islamic Emirate and long live Akhundzada."

Worshipper Aziz Ahmadi said he was overwhelmed.

"I cried when I heard the voice of Sheikh Saheb [Akhundzada] ... to hear him is like achieving my biggest dream," he told AFP.

But Mr Ahmadi said he did not see the leader among the crowd.

Another Kandahar resident, Bismillah, who attended the prayers at the Eidgah mosque, said: "I'm so happy that I can't even describe it.

"I had a dream to pray alongside my supreme leader, to hear his voice or to see him."

A senior Taliban government official told AFP that he saw Mr Akhundzada delivering the address.

"I saw him from a distance as he spoke. I even met him two days ago at his office," he said.

It was Mr Akhundzada's second known public appearance since taking control of the Taliban in 2016.

His low profile fed speculation about his role in the new Taliban government, formed after the group took control of Kabul on August 15 — and even rumours of his death.

His public profile has largely been limited to the release of messages during Islamic holidays from his office in Kandahar.

In October, Mr Akhundzada visited the Darul Uloom Hakimiah mosque in the southern city, according to an audio recording circulated by Taliban social media accounts.

On Friday, in a message released ahead of Eid Al Fitr, he made no mention of the bloodshed that had rocked Afghanistan during Ramadan, instead praising the Taliban's building of "a strong Islamic and national army" and "strong intelligence organisation".

Unlike those in Kandahar, many Afghans in Kabul preferred to stay indoors on Sunday rather than pray at mosques after the recent deadly attacks.

"The situation of our people is very sad, especially after what happened in the mosques," Kabul resident Ahmad Hashemi told AFP.

"Many young and old people have been martyred. The people of Afghanistan have nothing but sorrow."

The deadliest attack during Ramadan was in the northern province of Kunduz, where a bomb ripped through a mosque as a group of Sufis performed rituals.

At least 36 people were killed and scores more were wounded. No group has so far claimed that attack.

Updated: May 02, 2022, 4:23 AM