Bhutto defies ban and 'security threat' as she prepares for march

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Benazir Bhutto will attempt to lead her supporters on a "long march" today from Lahore to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, in defiance of a government ban.

"We appeal to all people, including from other parties and minorities, women and children, to take part in this long march," the former prime minister, who has been increasingly vocal in her opposition to emergency rule in the country, told reporters in Lahore.

The city was on high alert yesterday with police claiming the existence of two suicide bomb threats. Ms Bhutto, who arrived in the city on Sunday night, has been touring in the presence of elite police units and her own personal security entourage.

Despite the cited security threats to Ms Bhutto, whose return to Pakistan was met last month by a twin suicide-bomb attack that killed more than 130 people, she vowed to press on. "I know it is dangerous," she said. "But I ask myself, what is the alternative and how can we save our country?"

It is almost certain that her plans will be frustrated by the authorities, who have banned all rallies and protests under emergency laws. The Punjab police are under the control of the provincial government headed by Chief Minister Pervez Elahi. Mr Elahi and his cousin Chaudhry Shujaat, the president of the ruling party, are devoted foes of Ms Bhutto's PPP and were vehemently opposed to her return from exile.

At the weekend, when Ms Bhutto tried to leave Islamabad to address a rally in Rawalpindi, she was forcibly prevented from leaving her home as a police crackdown led to thousands of her supporters being locked up.

With leaders of other opposition parties behind bars, in hiding, or – in the case of the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif – in exile, Ms Bhutto has emerged as the focus for opposition to General Musharraf's imposition of emergency rule.

If successful, today's journey will take her on a four-day procession down the Grand Trunk Road and through the heart of Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province and home to the majority of seats in parliament. A good showing in Punjab, where the PPP has lost the past two elections, is crucial to her ambition to become prime minister for the third time after the forthcoming elections expected in January.

The Pakistan High Commission in London said last night that President Musharraf was outlining "the road-plan for transition to democracy" but it added: "Decisions regarding the transition will be taken in accordance with Pakistan's national interests and requirements, and not deadlines imposed from outside."