Ex-Afghan king's opponents aim to sink peace plan
By Crispian Balmer
ROME, Oct 16 (Reuters) - Opponents of the ex-king of Afghanistan are trying to wreck his plans to establish a credible alternative government to the Taliban, but they will fail in their mission, the monarch's entourage said on Tuesday.
Efforts to set up an emergency coalition to take power in Afghanistan were ploughing ahead with urgency amidst signs that the hardline Kabul regime was cracking under the strain of the U.S. bombing, the ex-king's grandson Mostapha Zahir said.
"There are spoilers. There are those who want to tear his majesty's programme apart. There are those who are not interested in seeing a role for his majesty," Mostapha told Reuters, without giving further details.
But Mostapha and two other senior advisers to his grandfather, Mohammad Zahir Shah denied the talks were in jeopardy.
"You can't make everyone happy, but the majority of people we have spoken to, and I have talked to no less than 43 commanders and elders, have all given me their total assurance that they back his majesty's peace plan," he added.
Zahir Shah wants to create a Supreme Council of National Unity as a first step towards forming a new government and is locked in negotiations with the Taliban's main foe, the Northern Alliance, on its composition.
"A mechanism must be in place to fill any eventual power vacuum. We have to work very, very fast," Mostapha said.
Afghan exile sources in Pakistan have said consultations in Rome with various exile groups were showing little progress, with some predicting that the whole process was bound to fail.
A source close to the ex-king confirmed that talks with the Northern Alliance on who should sit in the 120-seat Supreme Council had hit a stumbling block. A delegation from the Alliance was expected in Rome last weekend, but that visit was delayed and is now due later this week.
"We have to find a way to compromise with these people. We can't waste any more time. We can't make too much of a fuss about their delegation," the senior entourage source told Reuters.
Italian Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero met 87-year-old Zahir Shah on Monday and told him Rome could host the first meeting of the Supreme Council if fighting in Afghanistan prevented the assembly gathering there, as originally planned.
"If the Council is going to take place, it has to take place in the next two weeks maximum," Mostapha said. "It has to be fast because the ground situation is changing, deteriorating."
The ex-king's entourage is especially anxious to avoid a repeat of 1992, when the Northern Alliance, made up of minority Afghan ethnic groups, captured Kabul.
The country's largest ethnic group, the Pashtun, refused to accept its rule. The resulting civil war destroyed much of the Afghan capital and eventually brought the Taliban to power.
"I'm sure the Northern Alliance has learnt its lesson. It cannot go it alone, it needs us," a close relative of the frail former king told Reuters, declining to be named.
Zahir Shah has urged the United Nations to prepare a peacekeeping force to be sent at short notice to Afghanistan in case the Taliban collapse.
The ex-king, who ruled Afghanistan between 1933 and 1973 before being ousted in a bloodless coup, has also sent a three-member delegation to meet Pakistani leaders.
Pakistan previously backed the Taliban regime and its support is seen as vital for any future government.
A high-level German delegation was expected in Rome later on Tuesday for talks with the ex-king, after Zahir Shah met the Italian and French foreign ministers on Monday.
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