Kabul, 18 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, has arrived in Kabul after almost 30 years of exile in Italy. The ex-king has said he has no plans to restore the monarchy, but many Afghans believe he will serve as a unifying and stabilizing figure for a country devastated by 23 years of war, poverty, and tribal and ethnic divisions.
Zahir Shah, accompanied by interim Afghan government leader Hamid Karzai and six government ministers, flew out of Rome early this morning aboard an Italian military plane.
"It's a significant day," Karzai said ahead of the departure from Italy. "His presence there I'm sure will add to stability and peace in Afghanistan."
The 87-year-old ex-king was overthrown by his cousin in 1973 while he was vacationing in Italy.
Zahir Shah was to have returned to Afghanistan in March, but that trip was postponed after Italian and U.S. officials said they had credible reports of plots to kill him. Since then, 40 Afghan bodyguards have been trained by peacekeepers in Kabul and security has been stepped up around the villa where the king will live.
Italian Carabinieri paramilitary police are also taking up positions in the house and will work with the Afghan bodyguards. The streets around the villa have been blocked off and the gates ringed with concertina wire.
Security was tight in Kabul ahead of Zahir Shah's arrival, with Afghan police and international peacekeepers on high alert to protect against any threats to the former monarch.
Zahir Shah is returning home as a private citizen, but he is scheduled to preside in June over the opening session of a loya jirga, or grand council, of Afghan leaders who will select a transitional government to rule until elections are held.
En route from Rome, the king's plane landed for a refueling stop in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov had the king and Karzai inside for breakfast and tea.
Upon landing in the Afghan capital, the ex-king emerged from his plane onto a red carpet and walked steadily through an honor guard at Kabul Airport with some of the country's feuding warlords present in a show of support for his return.
Reuters reported that there was no announcement on radio or television of his arrival, highlighting the sensitivity of Zahir Shah's homecoming. Flags and banners of welcome, as well as crowds, were absent from Kabul streets, the agency said.