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Afghanistan: Former King Returns To Kabul After Decades In Exile

Afghanistan's former monarch Zahir Shah returned to his homeland today amid hopes that he will help unite the country in peace. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky, who was at Kabul international airport as the king flew in, filed this report.

Kabul, 18 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's former King Zahir Shah returned to his country today to inspire hope among his people that their shattered homeland can be rebuilt in a new era of peace.

Zahir Shah, who is 87 years old, was overthrown in a bloodless coup in 1973 and has since lived in exile in Rome. Many world leaders and international organizations believe he can use the considerable respect he enjoys among ordinary Afghans to help unite the country, which has suffered 25 years of conflict and is still bedeviled by severe ethnic and religious tensions.

The former monarch is to preside in June over a traditional conference, called a Loya Jirga, of tribal, religious and military leaders, politicians, and other distinguished figures. The Loya Jirga will pick a transitional government and prepare for democratic elections within two years.

Zahir Shah arrived home today aboard one of three Italian military transport planes that flew into Kabul's international airport within minutes of each other. The use of three planes was part of elaborate security precautions that reflected some of the tensions surrounding the former king's return to a capital full of supporters but also of potential enemies.

The three planes were used so that any opponents attempting a missile attack would not know which plane the king was aboard. The airport was heavily guarded by troops from the multinational peacekeeping force, ISAF. Metal detectors and dogs were used to search for explosives.

The king looked fit as he slowly descended from the plane, wearing a brown leather coat. Politicians, foreign ambassadors in suits, and several hundred tribal elders in magnificent turbans applauded when Zahir Shah appeared. Also welcoming him were Afghan women in brightly colored traditional clothes and with their faces uncovered, as well as scores of high-ranking army officers in gold-braided uniforms.

Arriving with Zahir Shah was Afghan interim government leader Hamid Karzai, who flew to Rome to accompany Zahir Shah home. The two were immediately joined by Deputy Defense Minister Abdulrashid Dostum, one of the country's most powerful warlords and ruler of a northern part of Afghanistan around the city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Walking along a red carpet lined by an honor guard of soldiers with bayoneted rifles, children presented flowers to the former king, who talked briefly to some of the dignitaries. He was then led to his car, part of a convoy of black Mercedes, which then drove slowly out of the airport.

One of the dignitaries welcoming the former king was Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Yusef Nuristani. He said he is feeling "great" that the king has finally arrived. "Most Afghans feel his return will help national unity. He's been considered as a symbol of national unity for a long time by many Afghans. So it will help certainly to bring the people together."

Zahir Shah has been absent from the country through much of its tragic recent history. That history includes the 1979 Soviet invasion and the 10 years of fighting that followed, which claimed more than 1 million lives. The Soviet-Afghan war was followed by years of internecine warfare that brought further devastation to the country, including the despotic rule of the ultra-Islamic Taliban regime.

Nuristani said most Afghans do not resent the king for his absence and understand it was difficult for him to return earlier. "There are some people who think he should have been here, but he had his own problems. There were a lot of other obstacles in his way. Otherwise, he was very much interested [in participating] in this moment all the other Afghans went through."

There are no reliable opinion polls in Afghanistan, but newspapers in Kabul say that up to 80 percent of the people welcome the former king's return. Nuristani said it is not known how many people want Zahir Shah to take on a largely symbolic role and how many want him to wield dominant political power or even restore the monarchy.

"He has never asked [for the throne to be restored]. He will inaugurate the emergency Loya Jirga, and then it's up to the representatives of the country. The political system of the country will be decided by these representatives of the nation. Everyone should respect their verdict," Nuristani said.

One of the tribal elders who welcomed the king is Usmanumi Sardar. He is from Khost in eastern Afghanistan, where U.S.-led coalition forces are still clashing with Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters. He expressed his reasons for welcoming the former king. "We have come to welcome Zahir Shah, who is now the father of our nation. We have come to greet him."

Sardar said that he and others who came to greet the former king believe he will bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. He also said that Zahir Shah's future role should be decided by the majority of the population.

One of the women who greeted the former king is the principal of a Kabul school for girls, Halia Hafizi. "I cannot express all of my feelings at this moment. But we are very happy. We couldn't see him from close up, but we are very happy. His role should be symbolic -- as the father of our country and as a guide for us," Hafizi said.

The former king's convoy drove the short journey from the airport to the newly refurbished villa where he will be staying, through streets crowded with onlookers. It is considered impolite to cheer in Afghanistan, but there was a festive mood, with drums being beaten and troupes of male dancers performing for the crowds.

One of the onlookers who lined the streets along which Zahir Shah's convoy passed is Janat Gul, who works as a cook for the InternationalCommittee of the Red Cross in the capital.

"I feel very happy about the king's return to his homeland, and I had this hope and desire from long ago when I was refugee in Pakistan in [the city of] Peshawar during the years of the war. And I am very happy that he's back," Gul said.

Gul, who is 52 years old, remembers the former monarch's reign fondly as a time of peace. He hopes Zahir Shah will be able to take a lead in reconstruction plans for the country. He said that if the majority of Afghans want the monarchy restored, Zahir Shah should once again become king.

The former king is expected to rest for most of the day. His schedule for the forthcoming days has not been announced, but he is expected soon to begin a tour of the country to meet tribal and religious elders and other powerful figures.

During his tour, he will try to smooth the way for the Loya Jirga conference that so many believe is vital for peace and the regeneration of Afghanistan.

Several world leaders praised Zahir Shah's return to Afghanistan today, including Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The Italian leader called Zahir Shah a "noble figure" who "will be able to contribute to bringing peace and democracy to Afghanistan."

But newspapers in neighboring Iran offered hostile reactions to the homecoming. The daily "Kayhan" said Afghanistan "does not need a fossil to please foreigners."