- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 18, 2002

ROME Afghanistan's deposed monarch, Mohammed Zahir Shah, ended a 29-year exile in Italy yesterday and headed home to Afghanistan a historic return that many believe will help stabilize the war-ravaged country and unify its ethnic and tribal groups.
His return had already been postponed once because of security concerns in his homeland, where a gunman shot into a group of American soldiers on a street in Kandahar, slightly wounding one soldier and one Afghan civilian.
An Italian military aircraft carrying the ex-king and his entourage, Afghanistan's interim leader Hamid Karzai and six Afghan Cabinet ministers took off just after midnight local time from the Practica di Mare military airport outside Rome. It was due in Kabul this morning.
Mr. Zahir Shah, wearing a brown leather jacket and a brown cap instead of his usual more formal attire, waved to reporters as he boarded the plane, but made no statement.
"It's a significant day," Mr. Karzai said earlier. "His presence there I'm sure will add to stability and peace in Afghanistan."
Security was tight at the base. Helicopters circled overhead and troops in black ski masks patrolled the perimeter.
The former king has said he has no plans to restore the monarchy, but many Afghans believe he will serve as a unifying and stabilizing figure for a country devastated by more than two decades of war and tribal and ethnic divisions.
Mr. Zahir Shah was ousted in 1973 by a cousin while vacationing in Italy and has lived in the country ever since. His return became possible after U.S.-led forces drove Afghanistan's Taliban rulers from power last year.
In June, the former monarch will preside over a grand national assembly of tribal leaders and other Afghan representatives who will select a transitional government.
The Afghan leader dismissed security concerns surrounding Mr. Zahir Shah, saying a three-week delay in his departure was prompted by the perception in Europe of threats against him not the reality on the ground.
"I'm very sure [security] has been maintained so far and will be maintained further," he said.
Despite the assurance, U.S. officials in Washington confirmed the shooting of a soldier in Kandahar, saying the man was hit in his cheek but that he was able to talk with them as part of an investigation into the incident.
A gunsmith in Kandahar, named Daood, said four American soldiers came to his shop and were buying magazine belts when he heard a gunshot outside. When he looked, it appeared a bullet had grazed the face of one American in the street and hit but did not lodge in an Afghan standing nearby.
The gunman fled, and the wounded American walked to his vehicle unaided even though he was bleeding, he said.
Mr. Zahir Shah was to have returned to Afghanistan last month, but the trip was postponed after Italian and U.S. officials reported receiving credible reports of plots to kill him.

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