As the 87-year-old former monarch arrived in Kabul with Interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai at his side, hundreds of cheering Afghans lined the streets near his new home.
He is due to meet with tribal elders to begin planning the grand tribal council set for June. The council, called the Loya Jirga, will choose a government to administer Afghanistan until formal elections are held in late 2003.
“His majesty said it was a great day for Afghanistan, and he’s very happy to be back,” Karzai’s chief spokesman Yusuf Nuristani told reporters. “He’s a little bit tired because it was a long trip, but otherwise he’s joyous.”
Earlier plans for the king’s return were scrapped repeatedly last month because of concerns for his safety. Tight security ringed the runway where Zaher Shah landed and some two-dozen international peacekeepers, backed by tanks and armored vehicles, kept watch over his motorcade. The soldiers are part of a 5,000-strong United Nations-sanctioned peacekeeping team assigned to bolster security efforts in Kabul.
Zaher Shah had been exiled in Italy since a 1973 coup ended his 40-year rule. Since then, Afghanistan has been plunged into one conflict after another: the 1979-1989 Soviet invasion, a civil war that led to the 1996 rise of the Taliban, and now the U.S.-led war on terrorism that began last year.
Despite the monarch’s return, Afghanistan’s internal strife continues. Earlier this month, police arrested hundreds of people suspected of plotting to explode bombs in Kabul and kill Zaher Shah and Karzai. Days later, four people were killed in what Afghan officials called an attempt to assassinate Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim.
Before leaving Rome to escort the former king back to Kabul, Karzai told reporters he thought the former king’s return “will add peace and stability to Afghanistan.”
For his part, Zaher Shah says he will spend his remaining years working for the Afghan people.
“I’m a patriot who does his duty,” he told the Associated Press last year. “I will carry out any role or mission the people of Afghanistan wish to bestow on me.”