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Italy Postpones Return of Afghan King Amid Security Concerns - 2002-03-23

The Italian government has postponed the return of Afghanistan's former King Zahir Shah, who has been living in exile in Rome since 1973. The exiled king is expected to convene a national assembly on the future of Afghanistan when he finally does return.

The 87-year-old ex-king Zahir Shah had been expected to return to Kabul on Tuesday. But the Italian government said Saturday it had delayed the departure of the exiled monarch.

According to the Afghanistan Embassy in Rome, the Italian government is concerned about the former king's security, and has requested several more weeks to organize his return home. A new departure date has not yet been set.

A meeting to discuss the situation in Afghanistan was held Friday between Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the exiled king and the U.S. ambassador to Italy, Melvin Sembler.

Zahir Shah has lived in Italy since his ouster in a coup in 1973. He resides in a secluded villa on the outskirts of Rome, which has been heavily guarded since the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. He plans to return to Afghanistan with his sons, and is expected to be accompanied by the head of the country's interim government, Hamid Karzai.

The exiled king is still a popular figure in Afghanistan, remembered by many as a democratic and fair leader. He transformed the country into a constitutional democracy during his 40-year rule. It was during his reign that women were given the right to vote, work and receive an education.

In Afghanistan, Zahir Shah plans to open a "loya jirga," or grand council of Afghan leaders. That council is expected to draft a constitution and establish a judicial system and police force in the country.

It also is to set up a transitional Afghan government that is supposed to stay in power for two years.