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Last king of Afghanistan dead at 92

Kabul, July 23, 2007 (AFP): Afghanistan's last king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, died in Kabul on Monday aged 92, mourned by the war-torn country where he spent his final years after returning from three decades of exile.

President Hamid Karzai declared three days of mourning for the "Father of the Nation," whose 40-year rule until 1973 is remembered as a time of peace and stability in the Central Asian country before its descent into chaos.

Afghan flags flew at half mast and state-run and private television channels alike replaced scheduled programmes with recitations of the Koran and sombre religious chanting.

Zahir Shah ended Afghanistan's centuries-old monarchy when he abdicated while on holiday in Italy in 1973, after hearing his former premier Mohammad Daud, who was also his cousin, had staged a coup.

He stayed in exile during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation and ensuing civil war but returned home months after the 2001 collapse of the ultra-Islamist Taliban regime brought by the US-led invasion after the 9/11 attacks.

Karzai announced the king's death in the presidential palace, saying: "I want to inform all my compatriots that his majesty, the Father of the Nation, Mohammed Zahir Shah, passed away today at 5:45 am."

"We announce three days of national mourning over the death of the father of the nation, and the Afghan flag will be at half mast for three days," Karzai added.

The funeral and burial for the late king will be held Tuesday in Kabul and prayer ceremonies will take place across the country and in Afghan embassies overseas the next day, presidential spokesman Khaleeq Ahmad said.

Zahir Shah was awarded the title "Father of the Nation" at a constitutional assembly after his return from exile.

Despite pressure from tribal leaders and fellow Pashtuns, Zahir Shah repeatedly said he had no desire to again lead his country.

He was in poor health for the last years of his life.

His wife Homaira, whom he married in 1931, died as preparations were under way for her to return to Afghanistan to join her husband in 2002. The couple had five sons and two daughters.

Born on October 15, 1914, Zahir Shah took the throne at age 19 after being at the side of his father, king Nadir Shah, when he was shot dead in 1933 by a teenager at a school awards ceremony on the lawns of a Kabul palace.

Under his reign, a 1964 constitution turned Afghanistan into a modern democracy with free elections, a parliament and civil rights.

However there were underlying problems, as the king was considered weak, there was widespread nepotism and a faltering economy. The tensions boiled over into the 1973 coup.

From Europe, Zahir Shah watched his country unravel, wracked by the Soviet occupation, an ensuing civil war and the hardline rule of the Taliban.

Tributes poured in from overseas for the elderly ex-monarch.

US President George W. Bush described him as a "monumental figure" in Afghanistan's history, adding he had encouraged his homeland towards democracy and stability.

Queen Elizabeth II said she was "deeply saddened" by his death, adding in a statement issued by the British embassy in Kabul that "his great experience and wisdom will be missed."

"It is with fond memories that I recall his visit to Britain in 1971. I am aware of the affection and respect with which he was held by the people of Afghanistan," the queen said.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Zahir Shah "played a unique role in helping to restore the unity of the Afghan people and Afghanistan's democratic values."

India said it would mark Shah's death by lowering its national flag Tuesday on state buildings and diplomatic missions worldwide.

The United Nations in Kabul described Zahir Shah as a "true king of peace", hailing him for presiding over what it called one the most tranquil periods in the country's history and exerting a unifying influence in the years of war.

The Taliban paid tribute to the king's earlier years but said that he was used by the United States for its own interests after his return -- a five-year period that has seen the militants intensify a bloody insurgency.

"The father of the nation was a known figure in the history of Afghanistan and enjoyed a lot of credibility," Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi told AFP in a telephone call from an unknown location.

"Unfortunately, recently the Americans used him for their interests -- from his return to Afghanistan until the day he died, he served US interests and became a stooge in recent years," Ahmadi said.