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Saturday, 29 September, 2001, 22:07 GMT 23:07 UK
Afghan opposition backs former king
Unidentified Afghan opposition representative meets Zahir Shah in Rome
The former king has said he wants to be of service
The former king of Afghanistan, Mohammed Zahir Shah, is holding talks with the opposition Northern Alliance to hammer out plans for a new government to replace the Taleban.

The talks are taking place in Rome, where the 86-year-old former monarch lives in exile.

He is too old and weak... A ruler who is brought in from outside will not last and the future of the Taleban will be bright with the help of God

Mullah Mohammed Omar, Taleban supreme leader
An outline agreement for the establishment of new supreme and military councils has already been reached.

The former king - who belongs to the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, the Pashtuns - is seen as one of the few people capable of leading a government of national unity.

A delegation from the US Congress is due to hold talks with him on Sunday.

But exiled President Burhanuddin Rabbani - still recognised by the UN as leader of the legitimate government of Afghanistan - said any authority imposed from outside would be unacceptable.

Mostapha, grandson and special assistant of  Zahir Shah
The ex-king's grandson says the outcome could be positive
"We are sending a delegation (to Rome) to offer them a 'national unity,'" he said, in a statement quoted by the AFP news agency.

"It is Afghans themselves who will decide their destiny, and people or groups abroad which do not take the realities of the country into account or are imposed from outside will be doomed to fail."

The king's spokesman, Zalmai Rassoul, said the supreme and military councils were being formed under the king's authority.

The new governing council would include tribal leaders and intellectuals from both inside and outside Afghanistan.

'Splits' among Taleban

It would not be the Loya Jirga - a traditional assembly of tribal leaders that the king has long proposed - but it would lay the ground for that once the Taleban had been driven out.

Taleban fighters check the ID of a driver in Kabul
The Taleban enforce a strict version of Islamic law

"Maybe something positive will come for Afghanistan out of a tragedy," said Zahir Shah's 37-year-old grandson, Mostapha.

He said there were also signs of splits in the Taleban.

The head of the Northern Alliance delegation, Mohammed Younus Qanooni, said on Friday that the US threat to retaliate against the Taleban for hiding Osama Bin Laden, the prime suspect in the attacks against the US, had unified the various groups opposing the Taleban.

Mr Qanooni said the US would benefit by helping the alliance financially, politically and militarily.

"One of the practical ways to get rid of terrorism is to help us in this matter," Mr Qanooni said.

The Taleban supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, has dismissed talk of a role for the former king, who was deposed in a Soviet-backed coup in 1973.

"He is too old and weak... A ruler who is brought in from outside will not last and the future of the Taleban will be bright with the help of God," he told the Iranian daily Entekhab.

Northern Alliance fighting

Northern Alliance forces have been engaged in fierce fighting with the Taleban in an effort to advance on the capital, Kabul.

They are pinning their hopes on possible US strikes against their enemy.

But, according to the Tajik news agency Asia-Plus, the alliance has admitted losing control of a key district in the north to the Taleban.

A Northern Alliance diplomat based in Russia, Mohammad Saled Registani, was quoted as saying that anti-Taleban forces had briefly captured Zari District, 90 kilometres (55 miles) west of Mazar-e Sharif, only to see their enemies retake it.

But, he added, the Northern Alliance had taken territory in the provinces of Badghis, Balkh and Samangan.

Russian and Tajik news agencies say at least 100 Taleban fighters have been killed and hundreds captured in the fighting.

The same sources said the Northern Alliance had lost 35 of its fighters, including a commander close to General Abdorrashid Dostum.

The BBC's Francis Kennedy in Rome
"The first sign of the kings' willingness to step in"
The BBC's Fiona Werge
"The search is on to find an alternative government"
See also:

28 Sep 01 | South Asia
Pakistan Taleban talks fail
28 Sep 01 | South Asia
Aid begins to reach Afghan refugees
23 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghan opposition 'gaining ground'
19 Sep 01 | South Asia
On edge: Afghanistan's neighbours
23 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghan ex-king offers his services
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