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Thursday, 18 April, 2002, 15:06 GMT 16:06 UK
Kabul joy as ex-king returns
Interim leader Hamid Karzai (left) with ex-king Zahir Shah at Kabul airport
The former king (r) is seen as a unifying figure
Former Afghan king Zahir Shah has returned to Kabul from Italy amid tight security after 29 years in exile.

Delegations from all over Afghanistan - holding flowers and pictures of the former king - greeted him at the airport, overjoyed at his return.

In his first message to the nation, broadcast on the BBC Pashto service, he described it as the happiest day of his life, and pledged to do all he could to serve his country.

Zahir Shah
Zahir Shah:
  • 1914: Born in Kabul
  • 1933: Became king after father's assassination
  • 1964: Introduced range of democratic reforms
  • 1973: Deposed in a coup, exiled to Italy

      Full profile

  • Zahir Shah's return coincided with news that a US fighter plane had accidentally bombed a group of Canadian troops in Afghanistan, killing four and injuring eight of them.

    The incident happened during a routine training exercise near the southern city of Kandahar.

    In Kabul, a newly-trained Afghan honour guard stood to attention as the 87-year-old former monarch stepped off an Italian military plane.

    Zahir Shah, a Pashtun, ruled for 40 years until he was deposed by a cousin while on holiday in Italy in 1973.

    Symbol of past

    He returned as an ordinary citizen - but he may have a significant political role to play. He is widely seen as a symbol of a kinder, pre-war Afghanistan, our correspondent says.

    Interim leader Hamid Karzai (left) with Zahir Shah leaving Rome
    Hamid Karzai (left) escorted Zahir Shah back from Rome
    He was escorted home from Italy by Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai, and six government ministers.

    General Abdul Rashid Dostam - a powerful faction leader in the north and interim deputy defence minister - walked alongside Zahir Shah at the airport.

    The former king, wearing a brown leather jacket, was kissed by tribal elders before heading off for his newly restored villa in a bullet-proof Mercedes.

    Well-armed international peacekeepers and Afghan troops lined the road to the airport, backed by tanks and other armoured vehicles.

    Zahir Shah has said he never intends to leave Afghanistan again.

    Media silence

    In a sign of political sensitivities surrounding his return, there was no announcement of it on radio or television. And there were no flags or welcoming banners in the city streets.

    A bomb blast which reportedly killed three people in the southeastern town of Khost on Thursday served to heighten security concerns.

    Kabul man holding pictures of Zahir Shah
    The former king still commands considerable respect
    The Afghan Islamic Press agency said the blast happened in a busy market and a number of people were also injured. It was the third in the town since the fall of the Taleban regime.

    The ex-king's return had been postponed several times, due to security concerns.

    Last week, there was an assassination attempt on the Afghan defence minister, and early this month more than 200 people were arrested on suspicion of planning a bombing campaign against the ex-king and Mr Karzai.

    Zahir Shah's family is no stranger to political violence; he came to the throne in 1933 after his father, Nadir Shah, was assassinated.

    Italian security

    Italian security forces, Afghan guards and the international force in Kabul are taking part in the operation to protect him.

    Once home, a special detachment of 40 carabinieri will continue to protect him for several months while they train his own security personnel.

    For Mr Karzai's administration, the return of Zahir Shah is a litmus test of how safe Kabul now is.

    Mr Karzai said the return of the former king was a sign of peace.

    "We hope his arrival brings more stability, prosperity, development and economical welfare to Afghanistan," he added.

    Loya jirga

    Mr Karzai, along with many ordinary Afghans and Western officials, is hopeful that Zahir Shah will act as a unifying figure for Afghanistan's many ethnic groups.

    But observers say some powerful figures - including members of the Northern Alliance - are wary of his return, fearing it could provide a rallying point for their opponents.

    The former monarch has been living with his family in a gated community in a Rome suburb ever since he was deposed.

    He has said that he is not coming with the intention of reclaiming the throne of Afghanistan, but he is expected to open the loya jirga or grand tribal council to be convened in June.

    The loya jirga, to which elections have begun, will choose an 18-month transitional government to replace Mr Karzai's interim administration.

    The BBC's Andrew Harding
    "Home at last after 29 years in exile"
    Kabul University's Parwez Bezmal
    "We think that peace and stability will soon come"
    Organiser of the ex-king's return Abdul Khaliq Fazal
    "He is here as a symbol of unity"
    See also:

    19 Apr 02 | South Asia
    Ex-king a sign of better times
    18 Apr 02 | South Asia
    In pictures: Afghan ex-king returns
    17 Apr 02 | South Asia
    No ordinary homecoming
    15 Apr 02 | South Asia
    Afghans elect first representatives
    27 Mar 02 | South Asia
    Threats to Afghan king mount
    07 Oct 01 | South Asia
    Rally for the return of Afghan king
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