Exiled Afghan King to Meet U.N. Rep

Afghanistan's exiled king said he is ready to lead his country if the Taliban are ovethrown and is to meet with U.N. officials and the anti-Taliban alliance, an aide said Sunday.

Former King Mohammad Zahir Shah  was to meet Sunday afternoon with Francesc Vendrell, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's personal representative for Afghanistan, aide Yusuf Nuristani said.

The 87-year-old ex-king's re-emergence comes as the United States is preparing a military response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The crisis has focused new attention on Zahir, who has lived quietly in Rome since his 1973 overthrow.

Shah is also planning talks this week with a delegation from his country's anti-Taliban alliance, said Nuristani. The Afghan opposition delegation had been expected Sunday, but its arrival was delayed and it was unclear when the meeting would take place

If the Taliban fall, Afghanistan will "quickly need a solid government headed by someone the Afghans can trust. And the king is the right person," Nasser Zia, ambassador of the Afghan government in exile, said in an interview published Sunday in the Rome daily Il Messaggero.

"In our homeland, his memory is still very alive," said Zia, who represents the government ousted by the Taliban in 1996.

Usama bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire named as the prime suspect in the U.S. attacks, moved to Afghanistan as a "guest" of the Taliban. Washington has warned the Taliban they will be targeted if they don't hand over bin Laden.

Nuristani said Zahir does not want to return to Afghanistan as a monarch, but hopes to help his country through a post-Taliban transition.

"The king has always maintained he'd return to Afghanistan if the people wanted him. He wants to play a role in the restoration of peace," Nuristani said.

Zahir has long dreamed of convening a grand national assembly of Afghan leaders, including tribal elders, clerics, intellectuals and landowners, and the idea is gaining support. Envoys of the United States, Iran, Germany and Italy have meeting quietly since December to seek a solution to the long-running Afghan conflict, and one of their key proposals is to convene such a traditional assembly, called a loya jirga.

Vendrell was expected to brief Zahir on the results of a meeting Friday in Geneva with diplomats from the four nations.

In an interview with the Rome daily La Repubblica, Zahir defended the Afghan people and laid the blame for terrorism on foreigners in Afghanistan.

"I hope that the punishment for the acts of terrorism committed by foreigners in my country will not involve the Afghan people," he said.

He said he was in close contact with Afghan opposition groups as well as the European Union, the United States and other countries.

"Our message to them is that the Afghan people are not responsible for these events," he said.

Rarely seen in public, Zahir lives in a villa on Rome's northern outskirts, surrounded by a small court of aides and advisers. Associates say he is healthy and takes a long stroll every day.

His 40-year reign ended with a coup by his nephew, which opened Afghanistan to three decades of devastating conflict.

The Associated Press contributed to this report