Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of Hezb-i-Islami, has made an appearance at a small gathering of members of the armed group in eastern Afghanistan after years of self-imposed exile.
The controversial commander, accused of war crimes, was one of the most influential leaders in the fight against Soviet forces in the 1980s.
The meeting on Friday came after Hekmatyar’s group signed a peace deal with President Ashraf Ghani’s government in September.
The accord gave Hekmatyar amnesty for past offences and granted him future political rights.
About 50 people gathered to meet Hekmatyar at a government-owned guesthouse, waiting for hours to meet him.
As Hekmatyar arrived, supporters chanted slogans of “Long live Hezb-i-Islami” and “God is great”.
“I have been counting days to see him for the past two decades, but today I was able to hug him after years of separation,” Naik-Amin, who attended the gathering, told Al Jazeera.
“We know some groups will not come to terms with us and our steps to make changes for the betterment of the country and will hinder our peace process, but if we stand united, we can make this country worth living and no innocent lives will be lost anymore.”
The peace deal has been criticised by many Afghans and rights groups, who accuse Hezb-i-Islami of human rights violations during the Afghan civil war in the 1990s.
Hekmatyar is scheduled to make his first public appearance in 20 years and address the nation on Saturday in Laghman province, Hekmatyar’s spokesperson, Hashmatullah Arshad, said.
“We’ve made positive steps towards peace. It is not easy to make peace in this country. Everyone has picked up a gun here, but that is not the way. Fighting is easy but making peace is difficult,” Arshad told Al Jazeera at the gathering.
Large billboards have been erected by Hekmatyar’s supporters across the country welcoming him back and supporting his peace accord with the government.
Hekmatyar founded Hezb-i-Islami in the mid-1970s. He briefly accepted the position of prime minister in an administration following the collapse of a Soviet-backed government in 1992.
Hekmatyar was designated as a “terrorist” by the US state department in 2003, but in February, the UN Security Council lifted sanctions on him, which paved his way to return to Afghanistan.
Rights groups accuse Hezb-i-Islami of war crimes [Fatima Faizi/Al Jazeera] [Source: Al Jazeera News]