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Kabul: The Taliban’s hyper-reclusive supreme leader made a rare public appearance Wednesday, an Afghan government spokesman said, berating the international community in a speech for criticizing his rule.
Hibatullah Akhundzada has made only a handful of public appearances since inheriting the leadership of the Taliban in 2016 and leading the movement back to power with the withdrawal of US forces in 2021.
Over the past three years the bearded “Emir” of the Taliban has ruled by decree, enforcing an austere vision of Islam largely ostracizing Afghanistan on the world stage.
In a 35-minute audio address, released by a Taliban government spokesman, Akhundzada said countries involved in the US-led invasion were still attacking Afghanistan with “propaganda” and “evil tactics.”
“Today, they want to divide you,” he said, according to the audio address. “They blame the leaders as defective, saying they are not able to govern.”
“Don’t let these infidels mislead you,” he added. “Stay alert for them, they will trick you, they want to fail you.”
“I will not take even a step away from the Islamic law,” he pledged.
Taliban government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Akhundzada’s address marking the Muslim holiday of Eid Al-Fitr in the largest mosque of southern Kandahar province “was attended by thousands of compatriots.”
An AFP source who attended the service said Akhundzada was not visible to large crowds in the courtyard of the complex, but a voice over a loudspeaker introduced the sermon as his words.
Tight security restricted access to the main worship mall, the source said, though several high-ranking Taliban officials claimed on social media they had met the Taliban chief on Wednesday.
There is only one photograph of Akhundzada. The press have generally been barred from attending his public engagements and Afghan attendees forbidden from taking photos or recording on their phones.
While the Taliban government ostensibly sits in the capital Kabul, Akhundzada operates from hideouts in Kandahar — considered the heartland of the Islamist movement.
Since the fall of the foreign-backed government in August 2021, his Taliban administration has ushered in curbs on women and girls which the United Nations has condemned as “gender apartheid.”
Unease over dealing with the Taliban government has seen foreign aid nosedive, dramatically worsening what was already one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
Kabul’s Taliban rulers insist they want friendly relations with other countries, but say they will not cave to pressure over human rights concerns about their domestic policies.
The religious affairs ministry issued instructions that during Wednesday prayer Afghan imams should read out a message published by Akhundzada earlier in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“We seek diplomatic and economic relations with all nations,” it said, while adding, “we expect and demand respect for Afghanistan’s sovereignty, integrity, and dignity.”
Akhundzada previously appeared in Kandahar in 2022 to mark Eid Al-Fitr with a speech congratulating Afghans “on victory, freedom and success,” his back to the crowd to preserve his anonymity.
In the capital Kabul, the third Eid Al-Fitr festivities under the Taliban government were accompanied by heightened security.
Extra checkpoints were erected around mosques as morning prayers began, with police and Taliban government security forces deployed and mobile phone signals disrupted.
Security forces prevented AFP journalists from recording services at numerous sites in Kabul.
Nonetheless, worshippers gathered in the thousands, spilling out into the streets as mosques were packed to capacity.