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Ex-King Zahir Shah Returns to Afghanistan - 2002-04-18

Afghanistan's deposed king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, arrived in his homeland Thursday after nearly three decades in exile in Italy. The former king now faces the burden of restoring unity to a country that has known nothing but war and civil strife during his absence.

A C-130 military transport plane made a graceful landing at Kabul airport Thursday, signaling the end of Zahir Shah's 29-year exile.

An honor guard stood in front of hundreds of supporters and foreign dignitaries. They clapped as the 87-year-old ex-monarch stepped off the plane ahead of his entourage of about 20 people, including members of his family as well as Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai. Mr. Karzai and seven ministers had traveled to Rome Tuesday to escort the former king back to Afghanistan.

Zahir Shah shook hands and hugged some of his supporters before he left in a motorcade to take up residence in his new home in Kabul. Heavy security followed him from the airport as hundreds of Afghan police and well-armed international peacekeepers watched his every move.

Rena Amiri, 33, was one of several women dressed in brightly colored outfits who welcomed the king home at the airport. Her family fled Kabul in 1973, right after Zahir Shah was deposed by his cousin in a palace coup. She grew up in the United States, but chose to come back to Afghanistan after learning the ex-king would return to preside over the opening of the Loya Jirga. "I think it's a real symbol of peace and hope for us," she said of his return.

The Loya Jirga, a grand tribal council meeting, will select the next transitional government and is the second to the last step in the country's efforts to become a democratic nation. Ms. Amiri says she is sure Zahir Shah's presence will have a unifying effect throughout Afghanistan.

"We are looking for markers to show that we are moving forward, and the king coming back signifies that we really are moving forward in terms of the peace process. That is the hope he brings for us," said Ms. Amiri.

Peace is still elusive in Afghanistan where the United States and its coalition partners are still battling remnants of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network and its Taleban supporters. Zahir Shah's return had been repeatedly delayed last month because of reports of death threats against him by opponents of the Loya Jirga.

In the southern city of Kandahar Wednesday, four Canadian soldiers were killed and eight wounded in a tragic accident. A U.S. F-16 fighter jet mistakenly dropped one or two 225-kilogram bombs on the soldiers during a live fire training exercise. They were the first Canadian deaths in an offensive combat operation since the Korean War.