A former Afghan Mujahideen commander and warlord who battled U.S. forces after the 2001 invasion and nursed bitter rivalries with other militant factions before signing a peace deal with the Afghan government appeared in public for the first time in more than 20 years on Saturday and called for peace.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who leads the Hezb-i-Islami organization, appeared in a gathering organized by provincial officials in eastern Laghman province in which locals and government officials were also present. He told the crowd in a televised appearance: "Let's join hands to end war and bring peace in Afghanistan."
The United Nations removed Hekmatyar's name from its Daesh-linked group and al-Qaida sanctions list in February and his assets were unfrozen and he is no longer subject to a travel ban or arms embargo.
During his remarks, Hekmatyar called on all insurgent groups to end the war and join the peace process in Afghanistan. He pointed to a recent attack by Taliban fighters on an army base in northern Balkh province, saying: "We cannot tolerate such a war and killing of Muslims inside a mosque while they are praying to Allah."
"I invite you to join the peace caravan and stop the pointless, meaningless and unholy war."
Hekmatyar said only Afghans can bring peace and stability to the country, not foreigners. "I want a free, proud, independent and Islamic Afghanistan," he said.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani welcomed Hekmatyar's public return, saying the former strongman would cooperate with the government.
"Hezb-i-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's return will have remarkable effects on peace, stability, prosperity and development in all aspects," Ghani's office said in a statement.
In September, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani signed a peace treaty with Hekmatyar in which Ghani pledged to lobby the U.S. and the U.N. to remove him and his party from terrorist blacklists. Hekmatyar signed the agreement via video link to Kabul's presidential palace. The ceremony was broadcast live on TV.
In an annual ceremony Saturday marking the 25th anniversary of the victory of the Mujahideen over the former communist government, Abdullah Abdullah, the country's chief executive officer, said he was happy Hekmatyar had embraced peace.
Abdullah said that as a result of the agreement signed earlier, Hekmatyar today is "in his own country and on his own soil, proudly among his own people and the Afghan people have welcomed him, too."
"We hope that this would be an example for others," he added.
The deal has been criticized by some Afghans and human rights groups for the pardon it granted to Hekmatyar and many of his fighters.
Hekmatyar's return "will compound the culture of impunity", Human Rights Watch researcher Patricia Gossman said of the deal, calling it an "affront" to victims of abuses.
During his days as a warlord, Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami forces were largely confined to two provinces and they have carried out few attacks in recent years.
Hekmatyar's hideout over the years was unknown, but he was thought to be somewhere in eastern Kunar province, where he enjoyed popular support, and made occasional trips into Pakistan.
The size of the group is difficult to gauge. The last known attack was carried out in 2013, when at least 15 people, including six American soldiers, were killed in central Kabul.
As a politician, Hekmatyar served twice as Afghan prime minister during the civil war.
The 25-point peace agreement gives Hekmatyar and his followers immunity for past actions and grants them full political rights.
Hekmatyar, one of the most influential leaders in the fight against Soviet forces in the 1980s, took part in the civil war that erupted after the Soviet withdrawal, clashing with the Northern Alliance.
Hekmatyar is accused of ordering his fighters to bombard Kabul, leading to many casualties, besides other abuses.
He was driven out when the Taliban seized power in 1996, but returned to fight the U.S., vowing to resist what he termed the foreign "occupation."