KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghanistan's deposed monarch, Mohammad Zaher Shah, ended a 29-year exile in Italy on Thursday 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.
An Italian military aircraft carrying Zaher Shah and his entourage, Afghanistan's interim leader Hamid Karzai and six Afghan Cabinet ministers took off just after midnight local time from the Pratica di Mare military airport outside Rome.
During a refueling stop in Tashkent, Uzbekistan at about 9 a.m. local time (midnight EDT), the former king was met by Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov, who joined him and Karzai for breakfast and tea.
Zaher Shah thanked Kamilov for his wishes after the Uzbek minister told the 87-year-old king that he hoped life in Afghanistan would soon return "to normal" and flourish.
The airport was sealed for the stopover, and the king flew out about an hour and a half after his arrival.
On the ground in Kabul, security was extremely tight as locals awaited the morning arrival of the monarch.
Well-armed international peacekeepers and Afghan troops lined the road to the Kabul airport, while tanks and other armored vehicles stood by at the ready. Jeeps mounted with machine-guns zipped back and forth on the runways.
Peacekeepers with dogs patrolled throughout the area, and even those accredited to witness the king's arrival had to pass through five checkpoints where clothes and bags were carefully inspected by guards.
In Rome, it was a no-frills farewell. Two Italian air force guards stood at attention stood on either side of the aircraft, saluting as Zaher Shah walked up the stairs without assistance, despite his age.
Zaher Shah, wearing a brown leather jacket and a brown tweed 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," 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 special forces troops in black ski masks patrolled the airfield as the monarch and his entourage arrived in a simple mini-bus.
Karzai had earlier dismissed concerns about the king's safety in Afghanistan, saying a three-week delay in his trip was prompted by the perception in Italy and elsewhere 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.
The 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 23 years of war, poverty, and tribal and ethnic divisions.
In June, the former monarch is to preside over a grand national assembly of tribal leaders and other Afghan representatives who will select a transitional government that will rule Afghanistan until elections.
Zaher Shah was deposed in 1973 by a cousin, Mohammed Daoud, while vacationing in Italy and has lived there ever since. His return became possible after U.S.-led forces ousted Afghanistan's hard-line Taliban rulers last year.
The king spent the last day of his exile at his heavily guarded home in a gated community on Rome's outskirts, surrounded by friends, advisers and family members, several of whom will travel with him to Kabul.
"He is totally relaxed," spokesman Hamid Sidiq said. "He is with his kids, the family members. They are really in a very good mood. They are looking forward to being home very soon."
Zaher Shah was to have returned to Afghanistan last month, but the trip was postponed after Italian and U.S. officials said they had credible reports of plots to kill him. Since then, 40 Afghan bodyguards have been trained by peacekeepers in Kabul and security around the villa where the king will live has been stepped up.
In an interview with The Associated Press last month, Zaher Shah said he wanted to spend his last years in Afghanistan serving his people and did not fear for his safety.
"I'm a patriot who does his duty," he said. "I will carry out any role or mission the people of Afghanistan wish to bestow on me."
The king is fondly remembered for the relative prosperity that marked his 40-year reign, the last stretch of peace the country has known. His rule saw the creation of a constitutional monarchy, and reforms that gave women the right to vote, work and get an education.
His return is likely to strengthen the hand of Karzai, a fellow Pashtun and a distant cousin, whose power base isn't as strong as that of Tajik and Uzbek members of his government, said Radha Kumar, a senior fellow at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.