Afghanistan's former King dies aged 92

( Reuters ) - Former King Mohammad Zahir Shah, whose 40-year reign until his exile in 1973 coincided with one of the most peaceful periods in Afghanistan's recent history, died on Monday aged 92.

"He died today in bed, we have no further information, but he had been sick for a month," a presidential palace official told Reuters.

State television interrupted its normal broadcast and a woman dressed black with a black headscarf announced Zahir Shah had died. Prayers and recitals from the Koran followed.

Zahir Shah ruled Afghanistan from 1933 until he was deposed by his cousin in 1973. He lived in exile in Italy before returning home as an ordinary citizen in 2002, but was accorded the honorary title "father of the nation."

"When I saw the mountains of my country, my people, my friends -- what is better that this," he said shortly after his return. "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 is a distant relative of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

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

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 in confidence and took full control in 1953, overseeing a cautious modernization of his backward realm.

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.

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

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