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Wednesday, 27 March, 2002, 18:05 GMT
Threats to Afghan king mount
Former Afghan King Zahir Shah
Security arrangements have been beefed up
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By the BBC's Pam O'Toole

A senior Italian Foreign Ministry official has confirmed that Rome has postponed the return home of Afghanistan's former king due to fears for his safety.

We had been getting ever more alarming reports

Margherita Boniver
Italian Foreign Ministry

Mohammad Zahir Shah had been due to go home on Monday after 29 years of exile in Rome, but will now return some time in April.

Margherita Boniver told the BBC that intelligence reports from both Italy and its allies suggested an increasing number of threats against the former king's life.

She said the threats came from a range of sources including al-Qaeda and Afghan warlords opposed to Zahir Shah's return.

They included an alleged plot to shoot down his plane on its way to Kabul.

Murder plans

"We had been getting ever more alarming reports from inside Afghanistan regarding the possibility of terrorist attacks on the King's life - real attempts to murder him - after we brought him back to Afghanistan," Ms Boniver said.

Welder repairs building in Kabul which will house the ex-king
The former king is now due back in April

The decision to postpone his homecoming was finally taken after a conversation between Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and US President George W Bush.

Ms Boniver said the alleged plot to bring down the former king's plane was "obviously one of the main reasons we had to reschedule the whole thing".

Security was now being beefed up prior to Zahir Shah's return, Ms Boniver said.

Arrangements were being made for some kind of personal security force to guard him, at least during the early stage of his return to Kabul.

She said talks were under way with the multinational force in Afghanistan about what kind of security assistance it would be able to provide.

US nerves

The Washington Post newspaper reported on Wednesday said that the United States had been nervous about the idea of the former king being guarded by Afghan security forces.

Afghan soldiers
Afghanistan is still at war with the remnants of the Taleban and al-Qaeda

The reports said Washington regarded them as unreliable.

There is huge support in Afghanistan for Zahir Shah, an ethnic Pashtun.

Both ordinary Afghans and their Western allies hope he can act as a unifying symbol within the country.

But experts allege that some elements - including some within the Northern Alliance which holds the lion's share of posts in Afghanistan's interim administration - are secretly opposed to his return.

See also:

22 Mar 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
Afghan hopes ride on ex-king
28 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan's turbulent history
21 Sep 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Afghanistan
01 Oct 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan's king in exile
07 Oct 01 | South Asia
Rally for the return of Afghan king
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