London — Prince Harry returned home to his relieved father and older brother Saturday after a 10-week Afghan tour of duty that security officials fear could now make him a top target for extremists.
His body armor hanging loose off one shoulder, Harry, 23, descended the steps of a Royal Air Force troop carrier with about 170 other soldiers. He handed some of his gear to his brother, Prince William, and was led by his father, Prince Charles, to a waiting family car, where he took off the bulletproof vest.
Harry, an army cornet, or second lieutenant, left the southern province of Helmand after details of his deployment appeared Thursday on The Drudge Report Web site, leaking news previously kept secret under a pool agreement between the Ministry of Defense and all major news organizations operating in Britain, including The Associated Press.
Military chiefs said they ruled that Harry had likely become a Taliban target and decided it was not safe for him to complete his tour, which had been due to end in April.
"As you can imagine it's obviously a great relief as far as I'm concerned to see him home in one piece," Prince Charles said after greeting Harry at Brize Norton air base in Oxfordshire, southern England.
Police who provide Harry with personal protection in the U.K. are resuming their duties guarding the prince, and Britain's domestic intelligence agency MI5 has helped the officers in a review of Harry's security, a government security official said.
In postings on known extremist Web sites, self-proclaimed al-Qaida supporters have called for Harry to be kidnapped and executed since the disclosure of his Afghan tour.
A plan to send Harry to Iraq last year was canceled after British intelligence learned of similar threats by militants to kill him.
"I think now he will be more targeted by the Taliban and al-Qaida supporters than before," radical preacher Omar Bakri Mohammad, a former British resident who is banned from returning, said by telephone from Beirut. "It seems to me he is carrying out war against Islam and Muslims."
The government security official, who demanded anonymity to discuss counterterrorism work, said widespread coverage of the prince's work in Afghanistan would make him an iconic target for terrorists, like other royals, key lawmakers and symbolic London landmarks.
But the official said the Web site threats to Harry were not necessarily evidence of an actual plot.
Charles said Harry and the royal family were disappointed the prince had been forced to abandon his six-month tour.
He acknowledged it had been difficult to keep quiet about Harry's work, saying he had claimed that his son was on training exercises when asked about his whereabouts.
Harry chatted to colleagues as he landed but made no comment to waiting reporters.
"I think the whole country is going to be delighted that Prince Harry has come back safely," Prime Minister Gordon Brown said.
Harry's work in volatile Helmand province involved calling in airstrikes on Taliban positions, as well as foot and tank patrols.
He spent part of his deployment at a base 500 yards from Taliban positions.
Conditions were primitive and dangerous, but Harry said the posting offered him a rare sort of freedom.
"I think this is about as normal as I'm ever going to get," Harry said while serving at a dusty outpost called Forward Operating Base Delhi.
Many of Harry's family have also seen combat - most recently his uncle, Prince Andrew, who flew Royal Navy helicopters during the 1982 Falklands War.
Harry's grandfather, Prince Philip, served on Royal Navy battleships during World War II.
William - second in line to the British throne - is also likely to serve overseas with the military, probably on board a Royal Navy battleship, the defense ministry said Saturday.
Officials said he could be deployed later this year on a tour to areas including the South Atlantic, the Persian Gulf, Pacific Ocean or the West Indies.
"It's our intention to give Prince William as full a taste of life in the Royal Navy as possible," a Navy spokesman said, on customary condition of anonymity in line with policy.