Benazir Bhutto arrives in Pakistan

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The Independent Online

Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan today, ending eight years of exile and launching what she hopes will be a remarkable political comeback.

A commercial flight carrying Bhutto from Dubai touched down at about 1.45pm (0945 BST) in Karachi, where tens of thousands of supporters were gathering to give her a rousing welcome.

Ecstatic loyalists of her Pakistan People's Party on board clapped and cheered wildly as the airliner's wheels hit the runway, drowning out the sound of the engines.

Bhutto, who fled Pakistan in the face of corruption charges in 1999, has chosen to come home during a period of particular uncertainty in Pakistan's turbulent politics.

With parliamentary elections due in January, she hopes to campaign for a record third premiership - perhaps in tandem with the country's US-backed military president.

A tearful Bhutto said it felt "very good" to be home.

Authorities have mounted a massive security operation to protect Bhutto, 54, from possible attack by Islamic militants, precautions which failed to dampen the spirit of huge crowds forming in Karachi.

Hundreds of buses and other vehicles festooned with billboards welcoming her back were parked bumper-to-bumper along the road from the airport to the city centre. A huge red, green and black flag of her Pakistan People's Party hung from one apartment block overlooking the route.

Supporters including representatives of Pakistan's minority Christian and Hindu communities and Baluch tribesmen with flowing white turbans, walked toward the airport, while groups of men performed traditional dances, beat drums or shook maracas along the way.

Azad Bhatti, a 35-year-old poultry farmer from the southern city of Hyderabad said he had "blind faith" in Bhutto's leadership.

"When Benazir Bhutto is in power there is no bomb blast because she provides jobs and there is no frustration among the people," he said. "whatever she thinks is for the betterment of the people".

Bhutto paved her route back in negotiations with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup. Musharraf is promising to give up his command of Pakistan's powerful army if he secures a new term as president.

The talks have yielded an amnesty covering the corruption cases that made Bhutto leave Pakistan in the first place, and could see the arch rivals eventually team up to fight al Qaida and the Taliban.

Before boarding her flight from Dubai, Bhutto told reporters that her homecoming felt like a miracle.

"I hope that, as this miracle is happening, that a miracle will happen for the impoverished and poverty-stricken people of Pakistan who are desperate for change, who want safety, who want security, who want opportunity, who want empowerment and employment," she said.

Outside Karachi airport, police baton-charged one group of supporters who approached the VIP terminal. But with the crowds swelling, they later relaxed the cordon and let thousands of flag-waving PPP partisans to gather round the building.

Raza Hussain Shah, a senior police officer at the airport, said 20,000 officers were deployed there and along the route into the city. Officials said police bomb squads and thousands of paramilitary troops and party volunteers were also charged with maintaining security.

Bhutto, whose two elected governments between 1988 and 1996 were toppled amid allegations of corruption and mismanagement, hopes to lead her secular, liberal party to victory in parliamentary elections in January.

Many Pakistani are sceptical that Bhutto can meet her promises.

"People are intelligent now, they don't buy this rubbish," said Kamran Saleen, a 38-year-old businessman who lives near Karachi airport. "They know politicians can't make much difference."

Her party is hoping that one million people will turn out today to welcome her and get her campaign rolling. Few observers expect such a massive gathering. Karachi police chief Azhar Farooqi said at least 75,000 party supporters were in the city - still a turnout few of her rivals could muster.

The risk of political clashes in a city of 15 million people famed for them has been eased by the apparent willingness of the Mutahida Qaumi Movement, a pro-Musharraf party that dominates Karachi, to accord her a peaceful welcome.

Instead, authorities were warning of the threat of suicide attacks and roadside bombings by Islamic militants.

Officials had appealed to Bhutto to abandon plans for a snail-paced procession to the tomb of Pakistan's founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, where she plans to make an address.

Babar Awan, a PPP leader mixing with the crowds, said the party rejected a proposal that she cover the 10 miles in a helicopter instead of a truck mounted with a bullet-proof glass cubicle specially prepared for her.

Bhutto, who shares Musharraf's support of the US-led war on terrorism, brushed off the concerns.

"I am not scared. I am thinking of my mission," she told reporters on the plane. "This is a movement for democracy because we are under threat from extremists and militants."

Musharraf has seen his popularity plunge since a failed attempt to oust the country's top judge in the spring. The rapprochement with Bhutto appears aimed at boosting his political base as he vies to extend his rule.

He easily won a parliamentary vote on October 6 to give him a new five-year presidential term.

The Supreme Court, however, has ruled that Musharraf's victory can only become official once it rules on challenges to the legality of his re-election.

At a hearing today, presiding Justice Javed Iqbal said the court hoped to issue a ruling within 10-12 days.

The court is also examining the legality of the amnesty.

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