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Afghan boy who went viral after wearing plastic bag Messi shirt flees Taliban

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An Afghan boy who went viral over his love of the Argentinian footballer Lionel Messi has had to flee his home after being hunted by the Taliban.

Murtaza Ahmadi, now aged 7, was pictured wearing a homemade Messi shirt that his brother fashioned out of a blue and white plastic bag in 2016.

The colours matched the jersey of the Argentinian national side, and the footballer’s name and shirt number were scrawled on the back in pen.

Murtaza, who later met his idol after the image went viral, had to flee Afghanistan’s southeastern Ghazni province with his family in November.

The UN has said 4,000 families left amid intense fighting after the Taliban launched an offensive in the previously safe area.

Witnesses have described “absolute terror” as hundreds of civilians, soldiers and insurgents were killed in the fighting.

Murtaza’s family belongs to the Shiite-denominated Hazara ethnic group, who were targeted by the Sunni Taliban in the attacks.

The boy is now living in a cramped room in the capital Kabul with his mother and brother.

His father Arif has remained in Jaghori where he works as a farmer.

Shafiqa has said the Taliban have been searching for her son by name.

She said: “(They) said if they capture him, they will cut him into pieces.”

Murtaza’s older brother Houmayoun, who made the Messi plastic bag jersey, said: “We are worried something bad will happen if they know who Murtaza is.”

Shafiqa added that she hid her famous son’s face with a scarf to prevent him from being recognised as they fled Ghazni.

She also told how they left their home district of Jaghori in the night after hearing gunshots.

Shafiqa said: “We couldn’t take any of our belongings, we left only with our lives.”

Barcelona forward Messi, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, met with the youngster after the image emerged 2016.

Murtaza clutched the footballer’s hand as he walked out onto the pitch with him for a Barcelona friendly in Qatar.

Messi gave him a signed shirt and ball, which were among the possessions left behind when the family fled Jaghori.

Murtaza said: “I want them back so I can play.”

“I miss Messi.

“When I meet him (again), I will say, ‘Salaam’ and ‘How are you?’ Then he will reply saying thank you and be safe, and I will go with him to the pitch where he will play and I will watch him.”

Sports were rarely tolerated under the 1996-2001 Taliban regime, and the Kabul football stadium was a well-known venue for stonings and executions.

Afghan security forces have beaten back the Taliban in Jaghori, but Shafiqa has said she doesn’t feel her family is safe there.

She said: “The danger of the Taliban coming back is high, going back is not an option.”

Shafiqa has also told how her family received unwanted attention from the image of Murtaza in the makeshift Messi shirt.

She said: “Local strongmen were calling and saying, ‘You have become rich, pay the money you have received from Messi or we will take your son’.

“At night we would sometimes see unknown men, watching and checking our house, and then the calls.

“During the days, we wouldn’t dare let him outside home to play with other children.”

The family have already fled once before when they sought asylum in Pakistan in 2016.

They returned reluctantly after their money ran out.

The family are among more than 300,000 Afghans who have fled their homes due to violence since the beginning of 2018 alone, according to the UN’s agency for humanitarian affairs.

(c) Sky News 2018: Afghan boy who went viral after wearing plastic bag Messi shirt flees Taliban