A day that had begun full of joy and hope

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Before the bomb blasts brought carnage to the huge crowd that welcomed Benazir Bhutto back from eight years in exile, the former prime minister was seen weeping with emotion.

On top of her specially customised truck which threaded its way slowly through the sea of flag-waving supporters, Ms Bhutto had declared: "It's a wonderful homecoming. Who could have had a better homecoming?" She added: "I feel overwhelmed by the love and support of the people. I have always felt very proud of the people of Pakistan... They are the people who will save the nation if given a chance."

Flying into Karachi from Dubai on an Emirates flight, EK606, the former prime minister finally emerged from the terminal and boarded her truck at 3.30pm, by which time thousands of her chanting supporters had gathered in front of the building. Seventy-five minutes later her open-top truck had barely moved more than 200 metres, such was the crush of people and the deliberately slow pace of its procession.

" Jiye Bhutto," sang her supporters as they danced and waved. "Long live Bhutto."

Her supporters and detractors will argue about precisely how many people turned out to welcome her on a blistering, cloudless day; one senior Pakistani journalist and a veteran of political rallies reckoned at least half a million people were present. Perhaps a better indication of the sheer number of people was that, from about three miles from the airport, the main road, Sharea Faisal, was so solidly packed with people that it was impossible to drive.

Cars and buses were parked up in the centre of the fume-filled highway and people were either walking to welcome her bus or else waiting on the pavement for her entourage to pass.

So why had so many people turned out to welcome this woman who went into self-imposed exile to avoid corruption charges – allegations levelled at her in the courts of several countries and which she has never been able to shake off?

Why had these crowds – including many, many poor people from rural parts of the province of Sind – come to cheer for a woman born into a life of privilege and wealth? "We like her, we love her," said Mohammed Rahn, from Lyari, one of Karachi's poorest districts, as he sat on a banner-strewn bridge with a dozen friends. "Benazir gave me employment during her first term. We endorse her."

Many said they were here because of their affection for Ms Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the country's first elected prime minister who was hanged by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq after a coup in 1979. Though Ms Bhutto may have inherited her wealth, at least they knew where her money had come from.

Mohammed Ismail Balauch, who was standing in the crowds at the airport, said: "Her father provided jobs for the people of Lyari. He came many times. This is a day of happiness for the people of Pakistan."

All parts of the country appeared to be represented, from Kashmir to the Punjab. And some people had clearly come out of curiosity; one 17-year-old, Walid Khan, admitted he had only gone to the airport because his friends persuaded him to get on the PPP bus.

Ms Bhutto's return to Pakistan came as the result of a power-sharing arrangement she has made with the country's military leader, General Pervez Musharraf. Part of the deal – brokered by the United States and Britain – includes an amnesty, signed by General Musharraf, that quashed a series of outstanding corruption charges against her.

For its part, Ms Bhutto's PPP party agreed to abstain from, rather than boycott, the presidential election earlier this month which General Musharraf won by a landslide.

Many senior PPP members disapproved of her negotiations with General Musharraf, though such concerns were apparently not shared by the rank-and-file supporters filling the streets yesterday. Most dismissed the claims and said that, unlike General Musharraf, she would work for the ordinary people.

Ms Bhutto also dismissed suggestions that she should not have made a deal with a man who seized power by means of a coup in 1999. "Of course there will be criticism," she said, waving to her supporters.

"I had a choice of either entering dialogue and moving towards democracy or else repeating the last five years. If the last years would be repeated then the extremism would be repeated. We chose the path of negotiation – there does not have to be collaboration."