Taliban's flag is seen in a marketplace in Kabul, Afghanistan, May 10, 2022.
Taliban's flag is seen in a marketplace in Kabul, Afghanistan, May 10, 2022. Reuters / ALI KHARA

The reclusive supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban, Haibatullah Akhundzada, joined religious leaders from around the country in Kabul on Friday at a meeting with a focus on national unity, congratulating them on the Islamists' takeover of Afghanistan.

Taliban spokesmen confirmed that the leader, who is based in the southern city of Kandahar, was in the capital attending the meeting of more than 3,000 male participants.

After receiving pledges of allegiance from participants raising their hands, Akhundzada congratulated those gathered on the group's victory in Afghanistan when the Taliban swept to power in August following their insurgency against foreign and U.S.-backed Afghan forces for 20 years.

"The success of the Afghan jihad is not only a source of pride for Afghans but also for Muslims all over the world," he said according to state-run Bakhtar News Agency, using the Arabic word signifying a spiritual struggle.

As the Islamist movement unveiled its interim government in September, following the withdrawal of U.S.-led foreign forces and the collapse of a U.S.-backed government, the mysterious Akhundzada retained the role he has held since 2016 of supreme leader, the group's ultimate authority, but he is rarely seen publicly.

The Kabul gathering began on Thursday under tight security.

At one point, sustained gunfire erupted near the venue, which Taliban spokesmen said was the result of security men firing at a "suspicious location", adding that the situation was under control.

At least one participant had called for girls' high schools to be opened but it was not clear how widespread support was for that proposal.

Deputy Taliban chief and acting interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani addressed the meeting on Friday, saying the world was demanding inclusive government and education, and the issues needed time.

"This gathering is about trust, interaction, we are here to make our future according to Islam and to national interests," he said.

The Taliban went back on an announcement that all schools would open in March, leaving many girls who had turned up at their high schools in tears and drawing criticism from Western governments whose strict sanctions are severely undermining the Afghan economy.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that they would respect the decisions of those at the meeting but the final say on girls' education was up to the supreme leader.

A hardline cleric whose son was a suicide bomber, Akhundzada has spent most of his leadership in the shadows, letting others take the lead in negotiations that ultimately saw the United States and their allies leave Afghanistan last August after 20 years of grinding counter-insurgency war.

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