Highly-placed sources in Afghanistan are sceptical of news reports on Taliban claims that its reclusive supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada, believed to be long dead, made a rare public appearance in Afghanistan’s Kandahar.

Akhundzada had not been seen in public even after the Taliban’s August takeover of the country, giving rise to the speculation of his death.

Reports had quoted a senior Taliban leader who was purportedly present with Akhundzada during the appearance as saying that the “supreme leader” had visited Jamia Darul Aloom Hakimia, a religious school in Kandahar on Saturday. Akhundzada reportedly delivered a spiritual sermon at the seminary.

Sources in Afghanistan, however, said reports of Akhundzada appearing in public and delivering a sermon may have been spread by the Taliban for the political effect to satisfy the demands of Taliban cadre and avoid a fight between Khandhari and Haqqani factions.

“This story is possibly fabricated. Unless a witness on ground confirms it or some picture comes up, it is difficult to say he is alive. ISI is the brain behind this because they don’t want any controversy in this domain,” a source told News18.

As the Taliban unveiled its interim government in September after US forces withdrew, Akhundzada retained the role he has held since 2016 of supreme leader, the ultimate authority over the group’s political, religious and military affairs.

His shadowy existence has led to constant speculation about his whereabouts and health. Previously, the Taliban had not confirmed the death of their founder, and original supreme leader, Mullah Omar, for years.