Former Afghan king ends 29-year exile

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The Independent Online

Afghanistan's deposed monarch, Mohammad Zaher Shah, today ended a 29-year exile, arriving at Kabul airport to a crowd of dignitaries and an honour guard – a historic return that many believe will help stabilize the war-ravaged country.

Thousands of people lined the streets along the former king's route from the airport, cheering, waiving signs and banners and beating drums as his motorcade passed.

"We've been waiting a long time for this day, three decades," said Gul Aqa, 45, who works for the Health Ministry. "If he becomes king again, the country will be calm."

Flown in on an Italian military aircraft, Zaher Shah was accompanied by Afghanistan's interim leader Hamid Karzai and six Afghan Cabinet ministers.

An honour guard stood on either side of a red carpet laid out at the base of the steps of the plane. Dozens of tribal leaders wearing traditional tunics and turbans waited for the royal entourage to arrive. Women in brightly colored outfits held up pictures of the former king. The UN special envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, and powerful Afghan warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum were among those present.

Zaher Shah shook hands and hugged some of the supporters before leaving the airport in a waiting car.

About two dozen International Security Assistance Force troops kept a close watch from the control tower.

Well–armed peacekeepers and Afghan troops lined the road to the Kabul airport, while tanks and other armored vehicles stood by. Jeeps mounted with machine–guns zipped back and forth on the runways before the plane touched down.

Peacekeepers with dogs patrolled the area, and even those accredited to witness the king's arrival had to pass through five checkpoints where clothes and bags were carefully inspected by guards.

In Rome, where Zaher Shah spent his time in exile, it was a no-frills farewell. Two Italian air force guards stood at attention on either side of the aircraft, saluting as the 87–year–old walked up the stairs without assistance.

Zaher Shah, wearing a leather jacket and brown tweed cap instead of his usual more formal attire, waved to reporters as he boarded the plane, but made no statement.