Shared from the 5/5/2017 Philadelphia Inquirer - Philly Edition eEdition

Afghan militia chief appeals for peace

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Gulbuddin Hekmatyar returned to Kabul.

KABUL, Afghanistan — Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Afghan militia leader who has spent the last two decades as a fugitive abroad, returned Thursday to the city he once attacked mercilessly and made an impassioned appeal for peace and unity in his war-torn homeland.

“I have come to cooperate with the government to help end the war and restore peace,” Hekmatyar, 69, told about 2,000 people gathered in the presidential palace in Kabul.

The extraordinary scene capped six months of intense negotiations between the Afghan government and Hekmatyar’s representatives after President Ashraf Ghani offered him complete amnesty, and asked the United Nations to lift antiterror sanctions against him, if the still-influential leader would return and help persuade Taliban insurgents to end their 1 6 - y e a r wa r against the state.

Despite the celebratory glow at the palace, there was concern that Hekmatyar’s return could also be-c o m e a n e w source of tension and instability in Afghan politics.

Hekmatyar’s

Hezb-i-Islami party and the Taliban have been rivals in the past and have battled for power in some areas of the country. Last year, the Taliban denounced Hekmatyar as a criminal and a traitor to Islam.

“I am bringing my family to Kabul to send a clear message to all Afghans,” Hekmatyar said. “From now on this will be our home as well as our grave, and we will not abandon it for anyone.”

Hekmatyar’s speech — interrupted by shouts of “God is great” and “Long live Hekmatyar” — followed a warm welcome and embrace from Ghani.

“I thank His Excellency from the bottom of my heart,” Ghani said, adding that Hekmatyar’s return shows that “an end to hostility and strife can be achieved.”

Hekmatyar, one of the country’s leading anti-Soviet militia leaders in the 1980s, was also a bitter rival of other Islamic militias and fought them in a civil war that destroyed much of Kabul in the early 1990s.

Many of Hekmatyar’s former foes — now in positions of power — are not happy to see him come back and have warned against it.

The peace deal is intended to woo Taliban fighters back to the negotiating table, but they appear to show little interest in talks after making a series of territorial gains in recent months.

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