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Friday, 12 April, 2002, 17:11 GMT 18:11 UK
Afghan king to return 'next week'
Former Afghan King Zahir Shah
Security arrangements 'have been improved'
The Italian Foreign Ministry says the former King of Afghanistan, Mohammed Zahir Shah, will return home next week.

His departure had originally been scheduled for late last month.

But it was postponed at the last minute after the Italian government said it had received a number of intelligence reports about plots against his life.

There is huge support in Afghanistan for Zahir Shah, an ethnic Pashtun.

Both ordinary Afghans and their Western allies hope he can act as a unifying symbol within the country.

But experts allege that some elements - including some within the Northern Alliance which holds the lion's share of posts in Afghanistan's interim administration - are secretly opposed to his return.

Bodyguards selected

Under Secretary of State at the Italian Foreign Ministry Margherita Boniver told the BBC that steps have now been taken to improve security around the former King.

Afghan soldiers
Afghanistan is still at war with the remnants of the Taleban and al-Qaeda

These include the selection and training of more than 40 bodyguards who will be in charge of the former king's personal security.

Ms Boniver said she was aware that the overall security situation in Afghanistan appeared to be deteriorating slightly.

But she said the threats against the former King seemed to have receded.

She would not reveal a precise date for Zahir Shah's departure.

The former king has been in exile in Rome for 29 years.

Al-Qaeda and warlords

Last month Ms Boniver said intelligence reports from both Italy and its allies suggested an increasing number of threats against the former king's life.

She said the threats came from a range of sources including Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda movement and Afghan warlords opposed to Zahir Shah's return.

They included an alleged plot to shoot down his plane on its way to Kabul.

The Washington Post newspaper said last month that the United States had been nervous about the idea of the former king being guarded by Afghan security forces.

The reports said Washington regarded them as unreliable.

See also:

27 Mar 02 | South Asia
Threats to Afghan king mount
22 Mar 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
Afghan hopes ride on ex-king
28 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan's turbulent history
21 Sep 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Afghanistan
01 Oct 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan's king in exile
07 Oct 01 | South Asia
Rally for the return of Afghan king
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