Bhutto confirms her return to Pakistan to launch election bid

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The Independent Online

Benazir Bhutto will end eight years of exile and return to Pakistan on 18 October to launch a bid for a historic third term as the country's prime minister, her party announced last night.

Her decision to return after the presidential election period is perhaps a sign, however, that Ms Bhutto will not threaten the re-election ambitions of the President, General Pervez Musharraf.

The Pakistan government said yesterday that Ms Bhutto, who fled the country in 1999, would not be deported on her return, the fate that befell another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, this week. But the Information Minister said she would have to face corruption charges.

Makhdoom Amin Fahim, the vice-president of Mrs Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, said she would land in Karachi and restore democracy. "It is the moment millions of Pakistani have been waiting for," he told a press conference at party headquarters in Islamabad. Parliamentary elections are due in January.

The announcement came just days after Mr Sharif was arrested and then deported to Saudi Arabia within four hours of arriving at Islamabad airport. Mr Sharif's supporters are challenging the move by the government, arguing that it defies a Supreme Court ruling that granted him an "inalienable right to return and remain" in Pakistan.

The Information Minister, Tariq Azim, said it was unlikely that Ms Bhutto, the first female leader of a modern Muslim nation, would be arrested. "But she will have to face corruption charges that are still pending. She has said that these charges are politically motivated. If that is the case, she will have every chance to clear her name," he said.

By coming back to Pakistan after the presidential election, Ms Bhutto will avoid a clash with the general's plans to ask lawmakers for a new five-year mandate.

Ms Bhutto, the leader of Pakistan's largest and most liberal party, has said she favours a more "pragmatic" approach to dealing with General Musharraf than Mr Sharif's. He has sought to challenge the President's rule through public demonstrations and with the blessing of recently revived courts, while Ms Bhutto has been locked in negotiations with the increasingly unpopular general.

These talks have hit an impasse. Ms Bhutto is demanding that General Musharraf should relinquish his post as army chief, seek election only from the next set of national and provincial assemblies, remove a ban that prevents anyone from serving as prime minister for a third term, offer an indemnity to all civilian governments from 1988-99, and revoke presidential powers to dismiss governments. General Musharraf wants a power-sharing arrangement that will preserve him in office for a further five years.

Washington is understood to be keen that Ms Bhutto and General Musharraf firm up a power-sharing arrangement soon. There has been increasing pressure on the Pakistani government to crack down on pro-Taliban militants. A Bhutto-Musharraf alliance is seen as the best possible hope for Pakistan's continued support in the war on terror, and according to a senior source privy to the talks, the US Assistant Secretary of State responsible for south Asian affairs, Richard Boucher, recently visited Ms Bhutto in Dubai before visiting Pakistan. Ms Bhutto lives in London and Dubai.

But there has been stiff opposition to any deal from within the pair's wider camps. Some members of the Pakistan People's Party oppose any compromise with a military ruler. And top-level conservative elements within Musharraf's Pakistan Muslim League remain committed to their life-long opposition to the PPP.