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Afghanistan: Former King Prepares For Homecoming Amid Security Concerns

Afghanistan's last monarch, Mohammad Zahir Shah, is expected to return to his homeland later this month after spending nearly 30 years in exile. Zahir Shah is returning as a private citizen but is also seen as a symbolic figure of unity who may play a crucial role in this spring's Loya Jirga. The Loya Jirga will determine who will represent the war-torn country in its next, transitional government. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports on the preparations for the former king's trip home.

Prague, 14 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The former Afghan king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, is committed to returning to Kabul later this month, but the exact date of his homecoming is only likely to be known a few hours in advance.

That is because of the stringent security measures surrounding virtually every aspect of the former king's return.

So far, the only specific date that has been mentioned is 23 March. That date was announced earlier this week by Afghanistan's interim administration leader, Hamid Karzai, during an official visit to Moscow.

Karzai said that he and interim Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah will go "on the 23rd to accompany the former king of Afghanistan back to Afghanistan." Karzai added that "the former king is returning to his homeland as a private citizen, but also as an important father figure."

Despite Karzai's comments, reporters monitoring the former king's preparations in Rome -- where he has lived in exile since 1973 -- say it is still too soon to know his exact departure day. Ahmad Rafat is RFE/RL's Persian Service correspondent in the Italian capital:

"The former Afghan king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, is leaving Rome, maybe on March 23. But Italian officials didn't want to give the exact date. They speak about between the 20th and 25th of March. That's because of security reasons."

Rafat says the former king most probably will be accompanied to Kabul by Margarita Boniver, the undersecretary at the Italian Foreign Ministry in charge of Central Asian affairs. Also likely to go with him is Antonio Martino, the Italian defense minister. They will travel in an Italian military plane along with most of the 87-year old former monarch's family, which includes four grown sons and two daughters, as well as several grandchildren.

Where the king will reside in Kabul also remains a closely guarded secret due to security concerns. Correspondent Rafat says the only certainty is that Zahir Shah will not occupy the royal palace in Kabul.

"The former [royal] palace has been transformed into the presidential palace and now is occupied in part by Mr. Karzai and in part by the former president, Mr. (Burhannudin) Rabbani. One of the granddaughters of the king was in Kabul during the last two weeks to prepare a residence for the family, but nobody is speaking about where the former king's residence will be due to security reasons."

Our correspondent says the former king is expected to set up residence in the heart of Kabul where -- informed sources in Rome say -- Italian soldiers with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) may take responsibility for his safety. If so, that arrangement would continue Italy's already long experience of providing for the former royal family's security during the 29 years that he has lived in exile in a villa outside Rome.

Rafat says the extent of the security measures surrounding the former monarch can be judged by the recent experience of one Western news photographer who sought to take his picture. When the photographer arrived for a pre-arranged photo session, guards confiscated his equipment as a precaution against a concealed bomb. Instead, they insisted he use an old camera that belonged to the royal family.

Despite the stepped-up security, it remains to be seen just how public a role Zahir Shah will play in Afghanistan's future affairs. He is reported to be widely popular at home, where his reign is often called a "golden age," at least compared to the past 23 years of warfare. But he has few immediate official duties, apart from inaugurating an emergency national assembly, or Loya Jirga, in June. That task was set for him under the Bonn peace accords late last year.

The emergency Loya Jirga is due to convene representatives of the country's political parties, along with tribal and religious leaders and intellectuals, to choose the members of an 18-month transitional government to succeed the current interim administration. The transitional government, in turn, is to lead the country to elections by mid-2004.

As Zahir Shah prepares to return, he has repeatedly said he has no personal ambitions of restoring Afghanistan's monarchy. But he has also never renounced his throne, either for himself or his children. Instead, he has said only that he will abide by the people's will regarding what kind of government the country ultimately chooses -- which leaves open the possibility of a constitutional monarchy.

A representative of the former king, Hamid Sadiq, said in a recent interview with RFE/RL the only thing the royal camp will say on the subject of the future. Speaking to Turkmen Service Director Mohammed Nazar, Sadiq said:

"His majesty has always said that he will never reject the wishes or will of Afghanistan's people or their representatives in a Loya Jirga. He will abide by their will. He does not want to make people accept him as king."

Zahir Shah, who ruled Afghanistan for almost 40 years, was deposed in a bloodless palace coup in 1973 by his cousin Mohammad Daoud. His return to Kabul will mark the first time he has seen his country in almost three decades.