Afghanistan's former king, who returned to the country earlier this year after more than three decades in exile in Italy, moved back into the royal palace yesterday.

The palace complex has been given a substantial renovation by the government, keen to use him as a figure of unity.

"It is like the birds coming back to their nests," the frail 87-year-old Mohammad Zahir Shah said as he was given a tour of the historic complex by President Hamid Karzai.

"It gives me great pleasure to come back, great pleasure," he added, resting his arm on Karzai's as he shuffled around.

Since his return in April, Zahir Shah has lived almost as a recluse in a house in the Wazir Akbar Khan diplomatic area, a few blocks from the royal compound that was his childhood home.

Having renounced all claim to the throne, his main role was to oversee a Loya Jirga, or grand council of Afghan chieftains and leaders, to approve a transitional government established after the US-led air bombardment last year helped the Northern Alliance unseat the Taliban and take power.

Although he fled the country after being overthrown by an uncle in 1973, Zahir Shah remained a popular figure among many Afghans.

He was given the title "Father of the Nation" following the Loya Jirga, and most Afghans - including Karzai - still refer to him as their King and call him "your majesty".

Yesterday, a convoy of cars and mini-buses deposited the king, his entourage and some very un-royal looking luggage, bursting at the seams, inside the palace grounds.

Rebuilt by Amir Abdul Rahman after being sacked and razed by the British in 1879, the complex - known as the Arg (citadel) - is actually a collection of palaces and buildings added to by generations of subsequent Afghan rulers.

These include the Soviet Union during its decade-long occupation of Afghanistan that started in 1979.

It was renamed "House of the People" by the Soviet's first puppet ruler, Hafizullah Amin, but even that deference to communism failed to endear him to Moscow's rulers, who evicted him and then ordered his assasination.

The heavily fortified complex still retains a hint of the splendour of its earlier days, but, like almost every building in Afghanistan, it is riddled with bullet and shell-holes - the consequence of over 23 years of occupation and conflict.

President Karzai has his quarters on one side of the grounds, but Zahir Shah will move into what was once the royal harem - a high-walled and airy rectangular building surrounding a garden with oak trees and a fountain.

As he walked slowly around the gardens, it was difficult to tell whether he was overcome by emotion or merely confused as to his whereabouts. Before his return, the former king had said he was coming home to die, and aides say he is in poor health.

But Karzai escorted him around with the exuberance of an Afghan groom showing his bride their new marital home - pausing to admire the flowers and stopping to choose marble tiles from a selection laid out for royal approval.

Throughout the tour, Karzai kept a firm grip on the shaky monarch, paying close attention to everything he had to say.

Heavily armed crack US servicemen kept watch from the roof and peeped from behind a gazebo - their only concession to blending in being the beards they have grown since being appointed to Karzai's personal bodyguard two weeks ago.

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