Fugitive Afghan warlord calls for peace in first public speech after two decades

Warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar speaking to supporters in Laghman province, Afghanistan, on Saturday. He was allowed to enter the country after the United Nations and the Obama administration lifted anti-terror bans on him.
Warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar speaking to supporters in Laghman province, Afghanistan, on Saturday. He was allowed to enter the country after the United Nations and the Obama administration lifted anti-terror bans on him.PHOTO: REUTERS

KABUL (Afghanistan) • Fugitive warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has made his first public appearance in Afghanistan after nearly two decades underground, calling on Taleban insurgents to "join the peace caravan and stop this pointless holy war".

On Saturday, he also urged all political parties to reconcile and seek change "without bloodshed".

The return of Mr Hekmatyar, 69, who spoke at an outdoor ceremony at a government compound in Laghman province, represented a sorely needed success for the beleaguered government of President Ashraf Ghani, who invited him to return home last fall, in hopes it would encourage the Taleban to follow suit.

A brief statement from the presidential palace said President Ghani "welcomes Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's return to Afghanistan as a result of the Afghan-led peace process".

"The deal shows that Afghans have the capacity to resolve the conflict through dialogue," it said.

But Mr Hekmatyar's homecoming was fraught with tension, and his expected arrival in Kabul was delayed by disputes over the release of prisoners from his former anti-government militia.

Also, his remarks had a strong anti-Western theme and were critical of the United States-led military campaign against the Taleban, which he compared with the Vietnam war and the Soviet quagmire in Afghanistan.

"If you are working to help Afghanistan, we are grateful, but if you are fighting here for your own political and economic interests, we ask you to stop using Afghanistan as your rivals' battlefield and, instead, face each other directly," Mr Hekmatyar said. "Don't test your ammunition on our oppressed people."

Mr Hekmatyar, long believed to be hiding in the rugged border region of Pakistan, was allowed to enter Afghanistan after the United Nations and the Obama administration, at President Ghani's request, lifted anti-terror bans on him.

His entry followed months of negotiations over his rights, privileges and role in civilian life. He is travelling with numerous armed loyalists as he makes his way to the Afghan capital, being greeted by supporters from his Hizb-e-Islami party.

Despite his call for conciliation on Saturday, which he also championed in a video speech in September shown at Mr Ghani's palace, the peace plan involving Mr Hekmatyar has been denounced by the Taleban, who have condemned him as a criminal and a traitor to Islam.

The Taleban and Hizb-e-Islami both fought the Kabul government but were never allies, and sometimes fought over power in rural areas.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 01, 2017, with the headline 'Fugitive Afghan warlord calls for peace in first public speech after two decades'. Print Edition | Subscribe