The reclusive Taliban chief, in a rare public appearance, Sunday hailed what he said was the return of security and the Islamic system to Afghanistan after his hardline group seized power last August.
“Congratulations on this victory, freedom and success,” Hibatullah Akhundzada told several thousand worshippers at the central mosque in the southern city of Kandahar. He spoke at the start of three days of Eid al-Fitr festivities to mark the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. The second largest Afghan city is known as the Taliban’s birthplace and de facto power center.
Akhundzada was making his first public speech since the takeover. He delivered the brief address without turning to face the worshippers.
Taliban security confined journalists, including the crew of the official Afghan television, to a corner of the mosque and did not allow them to approach Akhundzada.
An eyewitness told VOA the compound was heavily guarded, with machine-gun positions on the roof of the mosque around the dome and under construction towers next to the building. A large number of Taliban soldiers were deployed in and outside of the house of worship and Russian-made MI-17 helicopters and a Cessna aircraft hovered over the mosque when Akhundzada was delivering his speech.
The tight security measures stemmed from a series of bombings in mosques, schools and other civilian targets across major Afghan cities, including the capital, Kabul, over the past two weeks, killing and injuring scores of people. The victims were mostly members of the minority Shi’ite Muslim community.
Some of the attacks have been claimed by Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate, Islamic State Khorasan Province, commonly known by the acronym ISIS-K.
The deadliest of the attacks took place in the northern province of Kunduz, where a bomb ripped through a crowded mosque, killing at least 36 worshippers and wounding scores of others. No group has yet claimed responsibility.
War-related casualties, however, have almost disappeared in Afghanistan since August 15, when the insurgent-turned ruling Islamist group seized power from the then-Western-backed government in Kabul and U.S.-led coalition troops withdrew from the country days later after 20 years of war with the Taliban.
Akhundzada's public appearance on Sunday was his second known since he was appointed as the supreme leader of the Taliban in 2016. He had visited a mosque in Kandahar last October and briefly spoke to a small gathering of his followers.
Taliban social media accounts later released an audio recording from the October event in a bid to dismiss rumors of his death and media speculation about the role the low-profile Akhundzada is playing in the policy making affairs of the interim government in Kabul.
The Taliban rulers are being denounced by the global community for not lifting a ban on schoolgirls’ education in Afghanistan despite repeated public pledges they would allow women to work and receive an education.
In a message on Friday ahead of the Eid festival, the Taliban chief tried to address those concerns.
“We respect and are committed to all the Sharia (Islamic law) rights of men and women in Afghanistan; no one should worry about it and do not use this humanitarian and emotional issue as a tool for political ends,” Akhundzada said.
“The IEA is committed to take further steps in this regard, as education is the key to rescue our compatriots and pave the way towards our country’s development and prosperity,” he said, using the official name of the Taliban government, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
The Taliban were ousted from power in 2001 by the U.S.-led military invasion of the country for harboring al-Qaida leaders blamed for the deadly terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11 of that year. The ensuing war killed nearly 300,000 people, including foreign troops, with Afghan civilians forming the majority of the casualties.