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KABUL: The Taliban’s hyper-reclusive supreme leader made a rare public appearance Wednesday, an Afghan government spokesman said, leading thousands of worshippers in prayers marking Eid al-Fitr.

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.

Taliban government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said prayer in the largest mosque in Kandahar was “performed under the leadership of the supreme leader”.

In a statement on social media platform X, he said the early-morning service “was attended by thousands of compatriots” in the southern province considered the birthplace of the Taliban movement.

An AFP source who attended the service said worshippers did not see Akhundzada making his speech, but a voice over a loudspeaker introduced the sermon as his words.

Thousands gathered in the mosque courtyard, the source said, with tight security preventing them from entering the main building of the worship hall.

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.

He previously appeared in Kandahar marking 2022’s Eid al-Fitr with a speech congratulating Afghans “on victory, freedom and success”, his back to the crowd to preserve his anonymity.

The bearded “Emir” of the Taliban rules by decree from Kandahar, and has handed down a string of orders enforcing an austere vision of Islam since the collapse of the foreign-backed government.

Kabul’s religious affairs ministry issued instructions that during Wednesday prayer imams should read out a message published by Akhundzada earlier in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

In it, Akhundzada urged Afghans to respect sharia law and called for good relations with the international community.

“Injustice and being opposed to Sharia leads to insecurity,” the statement said.

Taliban supreme leader urges Afghans to respect Sharia in Eid message

In the capital Kabul, the third Eid al-Fitr festivities under the Taliban government were marked under 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.

Late last month Kandahar city was hit by a suicide bombing claimed by the Islamic State group, the main threat to the Taliban government.

A hospital source put the death toll at 20 whilst Taliban officials – who frequently downplay security incidents – said there were only three fatalities.

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