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Except for a red-carpet welcome at the airport, celebrations over the return of Afghanistan's exiled former king were low-key. Amid intense security measures, Mohamad Zahir Shah (above, c., in leather coat, escorted by interim leader Hamid Karzai, l.) arrived in Kabul from Rome aboard an Italian military plane, saying his only mission is to convene a traditional council, or loya jirga, that will choose a transitional government. He last saw his homeland 29 years ago. (Story, page 1.)

A "partial withdrawal" of Israeli forces from the West Bank city of Nablus was under way as the Monitor went to press, with more pullbacks due by Sunday. A rare calm prevailed across the region despite the failure of Secretary of State Powell's efforts to arrange a truce, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he hoped for an Israeli-Palestinian partnership in a "peace coalition ... one day, although it is not the case today." Meanwhile, special US envoy William Burns was en route to the region for what he called "a very serious" mission to defuse tensions. (Stories, pages 1, 6; opinion, page 11.)

A campaign season that has failed to excite voters was winding down in France, where the first round of voting for a new president is to be held Sunday. Late opinion polls gave incumbent Jacques Chirac a two- to five-point lead over Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, the only one of 15 challengers expected to make the race close. Jospin, who enjoyed an early surge in the polls, has lost support since accusing Chirac last month of being too worn out to serve another five-year term. A runoff between the two highest vote-getters is scheduled for May 5.

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At least 21 more people were killed as violence in Chechnya returned to a pace not seen in months. The victims were members of a pro-Russian police unit that was ambushed by separatist rebels in the capital, Grozny. The attack came one day after rebels killed 11 Russian troops and wounded 13 others in attacks in mountainous southern Chechnya. Despite the upsurge, Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted in his State of the Nation address for the second straight year that the "military stage" of the Chechen conflict was over and the time had come to set up functioning political, legal, and law-enforcement institutions there.

An end to months of political crisis in Madagascar appeared to be in sight after its presidential rivals signed an accord committing themselves to accept the outcome of a court-ordered recount of last December's disputed vote. Incumbent Didier Ratsiraka and challenger Marc Ravalomanana also agreed to a new election via national referendum within six months if the recount showed neither with an outright majority. At least 35 people have died in election-related violence since the controvesy arose.

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