Associated Press WriterROME (AP) -- Afghanistan's deposed king received friends and relatives on his last day in exile Wednesday as he prepared to return to his homeland after a 29-year absence.
Mohammad Zaher Shah, 87, had been scheduled to leave Rome late Wednesday, but there were reports he had departed much earlier, perhaps for security reasons.
In Moscow, the Interfax news agency said Zaher Shah had stopped briefly in Uzbekistan, on Afghanistan's northern border, and was en route to Kabul, the Afghan capital. A duty officer at the Uzbek Defense Ministry told The Associated Press the former king had arrived in Uzbekistan on a Boeing aircraft and was still on the ground.
However, an Italian Foreign Ministry official said Zaher Shah had not left, and would take off as scheduled later Wednesday. And Hamid Sidiq, the king's spokesman, said he was still in Rome.
The public plan called for Zaher Shah to fly on an Italian military aircraft, accompanied by Karzai and six Cabinet ministers.
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 more than two decades of war and tribal and ethnic divisions.
Zaher Shah was ousted in 1973 by a cousin while vacationing in Italy and has lived here ever since. His return became possible after U.S.-led forces drove Afghanistan's Taliban rulers from power last year.
In June, the former monarch will preside over a grand national assembly of tribal leaders and other Afghan representatives who will select a transitional government.
"It's a significant day," Karzai told reporters at the Afghan Embassy in Rome. "His presence there I'm sure will add to stability and peace in Afghanistan."
The Afghan leader dismissed security concerns surrounding the king, saying a three-week delay in his departure was prompted by the perception in Europe 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 Afghan foreign minister, Abdullah, acknowledged there had been several recent incidents that raised questions about the security situation in the country, including an attempt to kill the defense minister and the arrests of dozens of people accused of plotting to undermine the government.
"But overall, the security situation has improved since the establishment of the interim authority," he said. "I'm quite confident."
Zaher Shah was to have returned to Afghanistan last month, but the trip was postponed after Italian and U.S. officials reported receiving credible reports of plots to kill him. Since then, 40 Afghan bodyguards have been trained by Swedish peacekeepers in Kabul and security around the villa where the king will live has been stepped up.
Italian Carabinieri paramilitary police will also take up positions in the house and work with the bodyguards. The streets around the villa have been blocked off and the gates ringed with razor wire. Some 700 Afghan troops will protect the king's motorcade when he arrives Thursday morning.
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 receive an education.
His return is likely to strengthen the hand of Karzai, a fellow Pashtun and a distant cousin, whose power base is not as strong as that of Tajik and Uzbek members of his government, said Radha Kumar of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.
His return also might also allay some of the insecurities felt by Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan, who say they have been discriminated against after the ouster of the Taliban, who were largely Pashtun.
"They might feel he is there to be their voice, rectify the imbalances," she said. "That's a very, very important message to be going out."