updated 7/4/2004 1:44:33 PM ET 2004-07-04T17:44:33

Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-backed leader of Afghanistan who took over after the Taliban regime was ousted in 2001, accepted the Philadelphia Liberty Medal on Sunday at a ceremony at Independence Hall.

Karzai broke with the Taliban in 1995 and was appointed to lead his country after the U.S.-led invasion aimed at evicting the Taliban and tracking down Osama bin Laden.

“The Afghanistan people have sacrificed terribly to obtain freedom. In the resistance against the Soviet occupation and the fight against terrorism and extremism, we lost nearly 2 million of our people,” said Karzai, who thanked the American people for helping Afghanistan gain independence.

“We have paid for it with our lives and we will defend it with our lives,” Karzai said.

The medal’s $100,000 prize will go to support Afghan orphans, he said.

The award, first presented in 1989, is given each July 4 by the nonprofit, nonpolitical Philadelphia Foundation to recognize leadership in the pursuit of freedom. The selection of Karzai was announced in May.

Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street, before presenting the medal, said the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and other recent events have led Americans to understand the importance of promoting democracy worldwide.

“Your fight is our fight. Your people are our people. And your future is our future,” Street told Karzai.

Karzai was elected president by a loya jirga, or grand council, in June 2002. He is expected to win a five-year term in the country’s first Western-style elections this fall.

Previous Liberty Medal winners include Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall and Sandra Day O’Connor, Czech President Vaclav Havel, former President Carter and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

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