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Keeping the Former Afghan King Safe in Kabul - 2002-04-17

After several delays, the former Afghan king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, will return to his homeland Thursday following nearly 30 years of exile in Rome. His arrival is expected to severely test the interim government's ability to ensure peace in the capital.

Wearing new olive uniforms and white helmets donated by Germany, more than 400 Afghan police officers swarmed the streets of Wazir Akbar Khan, in Kabul Sunday. Posted just several meters apart, they formed a human wall around the neighborhood where the former king will live. Nearby, 100 specially-trained Afghan bodyguards, who will protect Zahir Shah, were busy setting up permanent guard posts, barbed wire fences, and concrete roadblocks.

This was the final security check for the interim government's police force, before the ex-monarch's expected arrival Thursday morning at Kabul airport. The Interior Ministry, which governs the police, insists the Afghan capital is ready to receive the ex-monarch. Din Mohammed Jurat is chief of security at the ministry.

"At least 800 police officers will be deployed on the day of the return," he said. "They will be posted along the road from the airport to the former king's new house in Kabul. About 100 security men will surround the compound and another 150 people will be posted inside his residence." Mr. Jurat stressed the heavy security is absolutely necessary to ensure Zahir Shah's safety.

The monarch had been scheduled to return last month. But the trip was postponed at the last minute because of reports of possible assassination attempts. The security chief thinks he knows the source of those threats against the king.

He believes the Afghan border with Pakistan is where much of the trouble is brewing. He went on to say, "Groups in Pakistan, who supported the fundamentalist Taleban, Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida organization, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, are determined to disrupt Afghanistan's bid to become a peaceful, democratic nation."

The Interior Ministry has alleged Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was the mastermind behind an alleged plot to kill the interim government leader, Hamid Karzai and the former king. One hundred 60 people, suspected of being members of Mr. Hekmatyar's hardline Islamic group, Hezb-e-Islami, were arrested earlier this month.

The former Mujahedin leader and prime minister had been living in exile in Iran, but disappeared last month. From his hiding place, Mr. Hekmatyar issued a denial, saying he was not involved in the alleged plot. But he is also well-known for his vocal outbursts against the king and the current administration, which he calls a puppet regime. He says he has fighters inside Afghanistan preparing to throw all foreign troops out of Afghanistan.

But observers believe the threat is not just from Mr. Hekmatyar. The ex-monarch is coming home to open, on June 10, the grand tribal council meeting, the Loya Jirga, which will select a new government to lead Afghanistan until democratic election can be held.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Rudd Lubbers, notes that with the Loya Jirga - and the king - seen as the keys to the country's future stability, Zahir Shah would make an important target for anyone who opposes democracy in Afghanistan.

"He is invited to be here, to strengthen that process," said Mr. Lubbers. "Even if he does that just as a figurehead, it is very symbolic."

Zahir Shah reigned for four decades before he was deposed by his cousin in 1973. Although Afghanistan suffered severe economic troubles during that period, it was still a relatively peaceful time for the country. There are no plans to restore the monarchy, but many people nevertheless view Zahir Shah as a unifying force, whose sheer presence may be able to reverse Afghanistan's 23-year descent into war and civil strife.

The interim administration's nervousness about the king's safety has been reflected in its state-run television and radio broadcasts, over the past several days.

Instead of in-depth coverage of the king's anticipated arrival, Kabul TV Wednesday showed music programs. There was hardly a mention of the king in its newscasts.

Since so few people know about Zahir Shah's return, it is not likely he will see the kind of public welcome home befitting a king. He will, instead, be instantly surrounded by hundreds of armed bodyguards and kept away from view until he is safely at his residence.