Key Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani makes first public appearance

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KABUL: Acting Afghan Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is also the deputy chief of the Afghan Taliban and is still wanted by the US, appeared in public and was openly photographed for the first time on Saturday.

Haqqani’s only picture on the US “most wanted” lists is a grainy semi-covered profile. Previously, he has only been photographed clearly from behind — even since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan last August.

On Saturday, however, he made his public appearance to address a passing-out parade for new Afghan police recruits in Kabul.

“For your satisfaction and for building your trust … I am appearing in the media in a public meeting with you,” he said in a speech at the parade. “I appeared in front of the media for the first time because of your credibility and to value you,” he told police officials.

He advised the police officers to “perform their duties … and deal with the people with care and kindness.”

His comments came two days after the Taliban allegedly shot dead a youth in eastern Kunar province who was reportedly playing music at his brother’s wedding.

The Taliban police chief in Kunar says that the Taliban men involved in the incident have been arrested and will be tried under Sharia laws.

The police passing-out parade was broadcast live on Afghanistan’s national television.

Haqqani also appealed to Afghans who have gone abroad to return to the country.

Pictures of Haqqani were being widely shared on social media on Saturday by Taliban officials who had previously only posted photographs that didn’t show his face or those in which it had been digitally blurred.

At the police parade, Haqqani was dressed like many of the other senior Taliban officials — very heavily bearded and wearing a black turban and white shawl.

Haqqani was among the first senior leaders who had entered Kabul in August last year but kept a low profile over the past few months. He would meet foreign dignitaries and Taliban officials but photographs from such meetings would always be blurred. He once appeared on a television interview but his face was not shown.

Haqqani heads his own group called the Haqqani network, which has been designated a terror outfit by the US for carrying out several major attacks on foreign and Afghan forces during the 20-year-long war in Afghanistan. However, the Taliban insist that there is no separate faction within the group.

Haqqani is wanted by America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation for questioning, with the US offering a reward of $10 million for information leading to his arrest.

He is the son of Mujahideen leader Jalauddin Haqqani, who fought against the erstwhile Soviet Union in the 1980s. The senior Haqqani later joined the Taliban and served as minister in the previous Taliban government.

As the deputy chief of the Afghan Taliban, Sirajuddin Haqqani is called “khalifa” by the Afghan Taliban and its affiliated militants.

His uncle, Khalilur Rahman, the Afghan interim minister for refugees, is also wanted by the US.

Rahman, too, has been keeping a low profile in view of security threats and US drones routinely flying over Kabul.

Now, only Sheikh Hibatullah Akhundzad, the Taliban chief, has yet to appear in public. Although he now regularly meets other Taliban leaders in Kandahar, his photo or video has never been shared with the media since the group took over Kabul.

The US and Afghan officials had blamed the Haqqani network for the powerful truck explosion in 2017 that officials had described as “one of the biggest” to have hit the Afghan capital.

Former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had stated that nearly 150 people were killed and more than 300 were wounded by the truck bombing outside the German Embassy, which was believed to be the deadliest such attack since the American-led invasion in 2001.