ROME -- 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 Practica di Mare military airport outside Rome.
Zaher Shah, wearing a brown leather jacket and a brown 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."
Concerns about security
Security was tight at the base. Helicopters circled overhead and troops in black ski masks patrolled the perimeter.
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.
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.