For the second time since gaining control of the Taliban in 2016, Afghanistan’s top leader Haibatullah Akhunzada appeared in public to tell believers celebrating Eid al-Fitr that the Taliban had gained freedom and security since capturing power last year.
Akhunzada spoke surrounded by security just days after a huge explosion ripped through a Kabul mosque, killing more than 50 people following Friday prayers – the latest in a series of strikes on civilian targets in Afghanistan during Ramadan.
“Congratulations on victory, freedom and success,” Akhunzada told thousands of worshippers on Saturday at the Eidgah mosque in the southern city of Kandahar, the group’s de facto power centre. “Congratulations on this security and for the Islamic system.”
While the number of bombings across the country has 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 primarily sectarian attacks – some claimed by the ISIL (ISIS) armed group – targeting members of the Shia and Sufi Muslim communities.
Akhunzada delivered his brief address from one of the front rows of worshippers in Kandahar without turning to face the crowd, according to social media posts. Taliban officials did not allow journalists to approach him. Two helicopters hovered over the mosque for the two-hour event.
In October, he had visited the Darul Uloom Hakimiah mosque in Kandahar, according to an audio recording circulated by Taliban social media accounts.
On Sunday, many Afghans stayed indoors after the recent deadly attacks.
“The situation of our people is very sad, especially after what happened in the mosques,” Kabul resident Ahmad Shah Hashemi said. “Many young and old people have been martyred. The people of Afghanistan have nothing but sorrow.”
Akhunzada’s low profile has fed speculation about his role in the new Taliban government – formed after the armed group took control of Kabul on August 15 – and even rumours of his death.