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Sunday, 23 September, 2001, 21:42 GMT 22:42 UK
Spotlight falls on Afghan ex-king
Anti-Taleban forces in the Panjshir Valley on Sunday
The oppposition controls less than 10% of Afghanistan
A UN envoy has said that Afghanistan's former monarch, Zahir Shah, could play a major role in a future settlement for the country.

He met the former king in Rome after Zahir Shah offered to return home if his services were needed in the current crisis and Afghanistan's anti-Taleban alliance announced it was sending a delegation for talks.

We have the feeling that a lot of Afghans after 22 years of misery, see in their former king the last ruler that had any legitimacy and the last ruler that presided over a period of relative prosperity

Francesc Vendrell

"I'm convinced that his majesty can play a very important role in the coming months," UN envoy Francesc Vendrell said.

Zahir Shah, who has lived in exile since being ousted in 1973, told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica that he supported punishing any terrorists based in Afghanistan but opposed military action that hurt the Afghan people.

The 86-year-old also called for a convocation of an Afghan national assembly to decide his country's future.

Foreign interference

"I am ready to return to Afghanistan if it serves to help my people," the former king said.

Former Afghan King Zahir Shah
The ex-monarch now leads a quiet life in Rome

Zahir Shah appeared to accept that Afghanistan-based militants were responsible for the attacks on America.

"We knew that the external forces present in Afghanistan would accomplish something terrible such as the attacks in New York and in Washington," he said.

"These people present in Afghanistan, with the help of strong foreign interference, have turned my country into a place in which terrorism has gained a foothold."

Zahir Shah has often been spoken of as a figure who could surmount Afghanistan's ethnic divisions, says the BBC's Frances Kennedy in Rome.

He recently broadcast a radio message to the country in which he appealed to their sense of patriotism to save their country.

New government

Correspondents say there is growing support within Afghanistan for his return.

The exiled monarch said that Afghanistan's future should be decided by its own people in a "grand assembly to decide without external influence".

The anti-Taleban Northern Alliance has sent a team of officials to Rome to see the ex-king and they are due to meet within days.

Afghan refugee in Pakistan
Millions of Afghans have fled the country in recent decades

The delegation aims to discuss "the future structure of a government for Afghanistan" with Zahir Shah and other Afghan exiles, spokesman Sayed Najibullah Hashimi told Reuters news agency.

Such a government would be "broad-based" and "acceptable to all the world's countries", he added.

See also:

23 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghan opposition 'gaining ground'
14 Sep 01 | South Asia
Aid agencies warn of Afghan crisis
18 Sep 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Afghanistan
22 Sep 01 | Middle East
UAE cuts ties with Taleban
16 Sep 01 | Americas
US prepares for war
21 Sep 01 | South Asia
UN moots return of Afghan king
22 Sep 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Afghanistan veers towards chaos
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