ROME – Afghanistan's interim leader arrived in Rome on Tuesday to escort the former monarch home after a 29-year exile, despite persistent security concerns and a new allied offensive to flush out Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
Mohammad Zaher Shah, 87, is scheduled to leave Italy Wednesday and arrive the next day in Kabul with interim Premier Hamid Karzai on Thursday, three weeks later than planned. The United States and Italy postponed his return amid reported assassination plots and concerns that security measures were inadequate.
Italian authorities say those concerns have since been addressed, and a senior U.S. official said Tuesday in Washington that there were no specific threats against the former monarch.
In recent weeks, a corps of bodyguards has been trained by Swedish peacekeepers in Kabul, and security for the villa where Zaher Shah will be living has been reinforced, with the surrounding streets blocked off.
Italian Carabinieri paramilitary police will be deployed inside the king's residence and will work alongside Afghan bodyguards until they can do the job on their own, probably in two or three months, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi said Tuesday.
The close involvement of the Carabinieri in the king's personal security detail — which had not been announced before — suggested that Western officials are still unconvinced that Zaher Shah's safety can be assured by Afghan troops alone.
Zaher Shah will arrive in Afghanistan aboard an Italian military C-130 transport plane outfitted to respond to possible missile attacks, Italian foreign ministry undersecretary Margherita Boniver said Monday.
At the time the king had initially planned to return to Afghanistan last month, there was a report of a possible plot to shoot down his plane with a Stinger missile, she said.
Boniver told reporters that "the risk of possible terrorist attacks naturally is always very present" in Afghanistan, but that the king's arrival would serve as a stabilizing force for the country.
Karzai dismissed the security concerns when he arrived at Rome's Ciampino airport Tuesday, saying the situation in Kabul was "perfect."
"The new Afghanistan welcomes all its sons, including the former king of Afghanistan, a fatherly figure, a symbol of unity," Karzai said.
"I'm tremendously glad to take him back," he said.
Zaher Shah has lived in Italy since 1973, when his cousin ousted him in a bloodless coup. Despite his long absence, some see him as the only Afghan who can reconcile the country's ethnic and tribal factions after 23 years of war.
In June, he is scheduled to convene a traditional tribal assembly, or loya jirga, which is to choose a new transitional government to rule until elections are held.
Zaher Shah has said he wants to spend his last years in his homeland.
He spent his last full day of exile at his luxurious gated home on the outskirts of Rome with relatives and met with Karzai and Berlusconi at the Italian premier's office in the evening.
"He is very happy to prepare for his departure to Afghanistan," spokesman Hamid Sidiq said. "He is in very good health, and (has) very positive enthusiasm."
Berlusconi said Karzai had made one request during their nearly hour-long meeting: "`Go after the enemies of peace ... We don't want the men of war among us any more,"' Berlusconi quoted Karzai as saying.
On Tuesday, coalition forces announced that elite British troops had launched their first major combat operation in the conflict, joining U.S. and Afghan soldiers searching for Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the mountains of southeastern Afghanistan.