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Threats Delay King's Return to Afghanistan

Homecoming: Italy, which is overseeing the trip, is worried about security for the exiled monarch on his arrival in Kabul, the capital.

March 24, 2002|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KABUL, Afghanistan — The homecoming of Afghanistan's long-exiled former king, awaited by many as the potential healer of their fractious and war-weary country, was postponed Saturday because of fears for his safety.

Mohammad Zaher Shah, 87, who has not seen his country since he was deposed in a 1973 coup, was due to return Tuesday from exile in Italy. Margherita Boniver, the Italian official planning to escort him home, announced that the trip was being delayed by at least a week.

Boniver, the Foreign Ministry undersecretary, said a flurry of intelligence reports during the last week pointed to threats on Zaher Shah's life, prompting Italian officials to reexamine security arrangements. Italy consulted the Bush administration and other Western governments before the decision, she said.

"We need time for more meticulous planning," Boniver said in a telephone interview from Rome. "We're trying to take him home to a country that is still at war.

"There are terrorist elements still at large," she added, declining to discuss the nature of the reported threats. "Afghanistan is still a dangerous place."

Armed remnants of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network, enemies of the former king, are fighting in eastern Afghanistan against U.S.-led forces that ousted the Taliban regime last year. Rumors of a Taliban plot to mar Zaher Shah's return with violence have long been circulating here.

But last week, Afghans took two big steps to bury the Taliban legacy, resuming the ancient celebration of the Nowruz spring holiday and reopening the school year with girls back in the classroom.

Zaher Shah's planned homecoming was widely welcomed as part of that revival and an advance toward peace after 23 years in which the country careened from Soviet occupation to civil war to fundamentalist rule. The new United Nations-backed interim government has invited the former monarch to open a loya jirga, a traditional assembly that will meet in June to chart a two-year transition to constitutional democracy.

News of Zaher Shah's delay came as a surprise here. Hamid Karzai, the interim Afghan prime minister, confirmed it just four hours after telling reporters that the homecoming was still on track. Karzai, a distant relative and close ally of the deposed king, had planned to fly to Rome today to accompany him home.

"We have to give the Italian government the say, as long as they are in charge of bringing him home," Karzai told a news conference called to tout the first day of school. He tried to duck questions about Zaher Shah, saying, "This is a happy day. Only happy questions, please."

Although most Afghans view Zaher Shah as a respected elder who could mediate the country's bitter tribal and ethnic rivalries and discourage power grabs by warlords, his return is not universally welcomed.

"There are drug dealers, warlords, Taliban and Al Qaeda types and what have you who want to off this guy," said U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), a longtime political supporter of Zaher Shah who has planned to visit him here.

Italian officials had assumed responsibility for Zaher Shah on the planned Italian air force flight from Rome. But they began to worry late last week about confusion over who would protect him after his landing in Kabul, the Afghan capital, where a huge welcoming crowd was expected.

"The Italians are thinking: After they get him back to Kabul, then what?" said a diplomat from another Western country.

The interim Afghan government's army and police are controlled by ethnic Tajik militia leaders long opposed to the former king, who is, like Karzai, an ethnic Pushtun.

In an interview last Sunday, Zaher Shah said he would be guarded here by "three circles" of defenders--his own trusted bodyguards up close, then the interim government's security forces and, finally, an outer ring made up of units of the capital's British-led international peacekeeping force.

Italian officials said last week that their nation's peacekeeping units wanted to protect the ex-king during the ride from the airport to his new home, which is in a walled compound.

But Karzai said Saturday that Afghans would be in charge of protecting Zaher Shah after he landed, and a British commander said international peacekeepers would not be involved.

Italian officials said they wanted a review of the international peacekeepers' rules of engagement to determine whether they could play such a role. The question of who is in charge of security "has to be discussed in more depth," Boniver said.

The former king reacted to the delay with the "disappointment of a man dying to go home to his country" but accepted it, she said. "He's grateful that we're trying to take such good care of him."

"We'd like to get back earlier, but we're not going to make a fuss," the ex-king's spokesman, Hamid Sidig, said from Rome. "This may be good for us. Everything about this homecoming should be perfect."

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