Afghan honor guard greets ex-king's return
KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- The former king of Afghanistan has returned to his home country and a red carpet welcome after 29 years in exile.
The Italian military aircraft carrying Mohammad Zahir Shah touched down amid tight security at Bagram airbase outside Kabul shortly before midday local time Thursday.
The former king is regarded by many Afghans as a father figure for the war-ravaged nation, with his return seen as part of the healing process that will bring a sense of normalcy back to Afghanistan.
Zahir Shah was accompanied on his return by Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai, and six Afghan Cabinet ministers who traveled to Rome to escort him back to Kabul.
His return has been postponed twice amid reports of a plot to assassinate him, and security within Afghanistan has been beefed up in anticipation of his arrival.
A senior U.S. official said earlier this week that there were no specific threats against the monarch.
However, as a precaution, a personal bodyguard corps has been trained in Kabul by Swedish peacekeepers, and security for the villa where Zahir Shah will live has been reinforced, with the streets around it blocked off.
For many Afghans, the former king's return is a positive sign following years of brutal rule under the Taliban.
"His presence there, I'm sure, will add to stability and peace in Afghanistan," Karzai said before the king's departure.
'Sense of unity'
Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah said, "It is, first of all, a sign of returning to the normal situation. It is a sign of normalcy. It is also important in the sense of national unity, which is much needed nowadays in Afghanistan, perhaps more than any other time."
The king will live in a well protected two-story house in Kabul, and a battalion of Italian paramilitary police will be in charge of his security detail for the next few months. Eventually, specially trained Afghan guards will take over the security detail.
Shah, who was deposed in 1973 by his cousin, will lead a "Loya Jirga," or grand assembly, for 18 months beginning in June.
During that time, the Loya Jirga will decide on the shape of the country's new government.
In a March CNN interview, the 87-year-old former monarch said he wants to bring peace and democracy to his country and is counting the hours until he is able to see his homeland and people again.
"I go back with eagerness. I go back with happiness and joy," he said.
"But also I have sadness in my heart, because on the one hand, I am very glad to see once again my people and my homeland. On the other hand, I know the changes that have taken place, the mayhem and the destruction, and that makes it sad."
He said in the past he was afraid his return could cause "more bloodshed," but now the climate has changed.
"I never wanted to impose myself on the Afghan people. I awaited them to give the signal that they are ready to accept me to go back, and I am ready to go back," the king said.
"I want to spend the last remaining years, the few years that I have left in front of me, at the service of my people and of my country."
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