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Last king of Afghanistan dies at 92

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan’s former King Mohammad Zahir Shah, whose 40-year reign coincided with one of the most peaceful periods in the country’s history, died on Monday aged 92.

President Hamid Karzai declared three days of mourning and ordered flags to be flown at half mast for the man heralded as “father of the nation” after he returned from 29 years of exile in 2002 to live out his last years as an ordinary citizen.

“With paramount grief, I would like to inform my countrymen that ... Mohammad Zahir Shah has bid farewell to this mortal world,” Karzai told reporters at the presidential palace.

The former king died in his bed after months of illness.

Karzai described Zahir Shah as the founder of Afghan democracy and a symbol of national unity.

Zahir Shah ruled Afghanistan from 1933 until he was deposed by his cousin in 1973. Since then Afghanistan has seen coups, wars and invasions that have cost millions of lives.

When the former king returned to his homeland after the Taliban government was overthrown, he was visibly moved.

“When I saw the mountains of my country, my people, my friends -- what is better than this?” he said. “I wish just to be able to do things for my country and serve it.”

Zahir Shah came from a long line of ethnic Pashtun rulers and was the last monarch of a dynasty established in 1747.

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The former king’s reign is remembered as one of the most tranquil periods of Afghanistan’s turbulent history.

“With the departure of King Zahir Shah, Afghanistan has lost a statesman of great stature, whose commitment and contribution to the peace, stability and welfare of Afghanistan and the region will be remembered for long,” Pervez Musharraf, president of neighboring Pakistan, said in a message of condolence.

U.S. President George W. Bush called him a “monumental figure”. “Zahir Shah supported the goal of a representative and freely elected government in his homeland, and he encouraged Afghanistan toward democracy and stability,” Bush said in a statement.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a native of Afghanistan, said: “While his monarchy spanned both prosperous and tumultuous times in Afghanistan, his ideals and visions rightfully earned him the reputation as the Father of the Nation.”

“The best way to honor his memory is to re-commit ourselves to making Afghanistan a safe and prosperous place.”

REFORMER

Born in Kabul on October 15, 1914, Zahir Shah received part of his education in France and returned to Kabul for military training. He ascended the throne in 1933 after his father was assassinated by a deranged student.

For two decades, the bookish king remained in the shadows, allowing three uncles to run the government. But he gradually gained confidence and took full control in 1953, overseeing a cautious modernization of his backward realm.

Former Afghan king Mohammad Zahir Shah is seen at the royal palace in Kabul in this August 4, 2002 file photo. Shah has died aged 92, the private Afghan television network Tolo said on July 23, 2007. Shah ruled Afghanistan from 1933 until he was deposed in 1973 and lived in exile Italy before returning home in 2002. REUTERS/Peter Andrews/Files

He supported an end to purdah -- the wearing of the veil -- for women, used foreign cash to develop the country’s medieval infrastructure and managed to keep a balance between rival Soviet and Western interests.

In 1973, while holidaying in Italy, Zahir Shah was ousted in a bloodless coup orchestrated by his cousin and brother-in-law, Prince Daoud, ending two centuries of rule by the Durrani dynasty. He then lived for 29 years in exile in Italy.

Daoud was later killed in a coup. Soviet troops entered the country in 1979 to prop up the communist government, and since then Afghanistan has barely seen peace.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, blamed on al Qaeda, U.S.-led forces helped an Afghan alliance overthrow the Taliban government which had allowed al Qaeda to use Afghan territory as a haven and base.

Zahir Shah returned home in 2002 and was given the title “Father of the Nation” by a government-summoned grand council. Afghan publications urged him to take a leadership role in the post-Taliban government, but the monarch kept a low profile.

Some Afghans look back with nostalgia to Zahir Shah’s rule, but others saw him as an ineffective ruler.

Zahir Shah will be buried in a mausoleum next to his father on a hill overlooking Kabul.

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