- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 27, 2002

ROME President Bush telephoned Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to warn of threats against the exiled Afghan king, triggering a last-minute decision to delay the monarch's return to his homeland, a top Italian official said yesterday.

Italy also had "alarming reports" from its military intelligence about plans to assassinate the king upon his return, Margherita Boniver, a Foreign Ministry undersecretary for Afghan affairs, said in an interview.

Italy also decided to take charge of security for former King Mohammed Zahir Shah when he does return to Afghanistan rather than leave it in the hands of Afghan authorities.

"This all happened after Bush called Berlusconi," Mrs. Boniver said.

King Zahir and interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai were both surprised by the Italian decisions.

King Zahir had expected to leave Rome on Monday. Mr. Karzai was preparing to fly from Kabul to Rome on Sunday to escort the exiled monarch.

The postponement was not announced until midday Saturday, two days after the Bush-Berlusconi phone call and a day after the U.S. ambassador to Italy, Melvin Sembler, paid a personal visit to the Italian prime minister to discuss American concerns.

It now appears that King Zahir, who has lived in Rome since his ouster in a 1973 coup, will not return before mid-April.

"We feel responsible not only for taking the king back, but his safety and security once he gets there," Mrs. Boniver said.

Italy had planned to deliver the 87-year-old exile to Kabul and then hand off security to the interim Afghan government's Interior Ministry.

However, the troops that would have protected King Zahir came from a faction seen as political rivals to the king and Mr. Karzai.

As King Zahir's return approached, Italy began getting "alarming reports" about threats, Mrs. Boniver said, and came to share U.S. concerns about his safety once he returned.


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