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Reclusive Taliban Leader Addresses Afghan Assembly, Lauds 'Victory'


Before October, Mawlawi Haibuatullah Akhundzada had not been seen in public at all since becoming Taliban leader in 2016. (file photo)

The Taliban's supreme leader, Mawlawi Haibuatullah Akhundzada, is addressing a grand meeting in Kabul of some 3,000 male clerics and tribal leaders discussing the running of the country.

The June 30-July 2 "grand assembly of ulema," or religious scholars, is a tightly controlled event where women are banned and delegates are handpicked by the Taliban. Ethnic and religious minorities have been excluded.

Akhundzada heads the Taliban-led government that took control of Afghanistan after U.S.-led international troops withdrew and the UN-backed government collapsed in August.

In his speech, he reportedly congratulated attendees on their "victory" in Afghanistan.

He also expressed prayers for the victims of a recent devastating earthquake last week that killed more than 1,000 Afghans.

Akhundzada's presence at the assembly on July 1 marks his first public appearance in Kabul.

Before October, Akhundzada had not been seen in public at all since becoming Taliban leader in 2016.

Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Hanafi said this week that the assembly's participants would discuss Islamic governance, national unity and security, and economic and social issues, and that politicians, businessmen, and traders would attend.

The inclusion of some of those groups suggests the Taliban are trying to make it resemble a long-promised Loya Jirga (grand council) --- a centuries-old institution that provides representatives from Afghanistan's diverse ethnic, religious, and tribal communities an opportunity to say how the nation will be governed.

The United States and most of the international community have shunned the Taliban and its unrecognized government, demanding greater inclusivity and respect for minority and women’s rights.

The international isolation of the Taliban and the country’s financing have contributed to Afghanistan's economic collapse and ongoing humanitarian crises, including dire food shortages.

Last week, Akhundzada called on the international community to donate to help with relief efforts after the earthquake struck early on June 22.

He urged outsiders "to join hands with the Afghan people in this great tragedy."

Finance and central bank officials from the Taliban-led government are reportedly meeting with U.S. officials in Qatar to discuss economic and aid issues following the earthquake.

The Washington Post first reported on June 28 that senior Biden administration officials are working with the Taliban leadership on a mechanism to allow Kabul to use central bank reserves while erecting safeguards to ensure the funds are not misused.

With additional reporting by Reuters and AP
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