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Monday, 1 October, 2001, 09:50 GMT 10:50 UK
Former Afghan king finds US favour
Curt Weldon (left) and Zahir Shah (rights) in Rome
The US think the former king (right) will unite anti-Taleban groups
A delegation of United States congressmen have said they came away "very much impressed" from talks with the former King of Afghanistan, Mohammed Zahir Shah, on setting up an alternative to the Taleban government.

We think that perhaps he is the person who can rally those against the Taleban most effectively

Congressman Curt Weldon

The former king met the congressmen, from both the Democrat and Republican parties, and also had further discussions with members of Afghanistan's opposition Northern Alliance.

Meanwhile, senior US officials quoted by the New York Times say President George Bush has approved covert efforts to help the anti-Taleban opposition, including possible military funding

"The purpose is to enhance their ability to move against the Taleban," the paper quoted an unidentified US official as saying. "It is not limited to political support."

Key figure

The US sees the 86-year-old former king - who belongs to the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, the Pashtuns - as a critical figure in setting up any unity government to replace the Afghan regime, which has been sheltering Osama Bin Laden since 1996.

Taleban fighters check the ID of a driver in Kabul
The Taleban have rejected a role for the former king
A spokesman for the former monarch said the talks had been "very fruitful".

The US delegation, which also had a meeting with the Northern Alliance, had already discussed the crisis with officials in Moscow.

US republican delegation head Curt Weldon said : "He wants to see people of Afghanistan liberate themselves. That's the same thing that we want, but we think that perhaps he is the person who can rally those against the Taleban most effectively".

The Taleban supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, warned the monarch, who was deposed in 1973, not to meddle in Afghanistan's affairs.

"How dare you think you can return to Afghanistan backed by the United States. How are you going to rule the country? How can you think of such things?" he said in a speech on Afghan radio.

There is also believed to be a reluctance among many groups fighting the Taleban to allow the former monarch a prominent role amid fears Zahir Shah could risk becoming a US puppet.

Unity government

The former king has called for a grand assembly of elders to be convened to create an anti-Taleban coalition.

The former king in 1965
Zahir Shah in 1965
An outline agreement for the establishment of new supreme and military councils has already been reached.

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

On Saturday, the congressmen told representatives of the Northern Alliance that the US would help rebuild Afghanistan in exchange for help in overthrowing the Kabul government.

Interference rejected

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.

"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 Northern Alliance coalition holds about 10% of Afghan territory.

Its 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.

The BBC's Frances Kennedy
"The American delegation is expected to meet Northern Alliance leaders"
See also:

28 Sep 01 | South Asia
Pakistan Taleban talks fail
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
27 Sep 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Afghanistan's future
30 Sep 01 | South Asia
Kabul aid workers trial resumes
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