Rome Afghanistan's former king said Sunday he recognized the "legitimate right" of the United States to pursue those responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks but urged that innocents be spared in the U.S. strikes on his homeland.
In a statement issued by his office, former King Mohammad Zaher Shah, who has been working to select a new government for Afghanistan, said his paramount objective was the safety and dignity of Afghans and the integrity of the country.
"Unfortunately, the unpatriotic position of the Taliban and their sponsors has again inflicted pain, sorrow and destruction on the people of Afghanistan," the statement said.
The statement was issued hours after the United States and Britain launched a missile attack targeting Osama bin Laden and his Taliban backers.
The strikes came after the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden to U.S. authorities, who have named him as the prime suspect in the worst terrorist attacks in history.
"Although we recognize the United States' legitimate right to pursue and seek justice against those who perpetrated the criminal acts of Sept. 11, our paramount objective is the safety, integrity and dignity of the Afghan nation and the Afghan territory," the statement said.
"We urge the United States and its allies to respect the territorial integrity of Afghanistan and the safety and the life of our innocent people."
"Furthermore, the Afghan nation must be given the right and the opportunity to determine its political future according to its free will," the statement concluded.
Zaher Shah, 86, ruled Afghanistan for 40 years until his 1973 ouster by a cousin. He has lived in exile in Rome ever since, but is still fondly remembered in Afghanistan for the relative peace and prosperity that flourished during his rule.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Afghans and outsiders have looked to Zaher Shah as the only Afghan who might be able to unify Afghanistan's many ethnic and religious groups.
Last week, he and the anti-Taliban northern alliance agreed to convene an emergency meeting of tribal and military leaders to select a new government for Afghanistan.
A supreme council of an initial 120 people representing the northern alliance, the king and various tribal and ethnic groups would select the government itself if "dire" circumstances prevented the meeting from taking place in Afghanistan.