KARACHI (AFP) – Former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto arrived back home after eight years in exile, defying Al-Qaeda death threats to get a jubilant welcome from hundreds of thousands of supporters.
Bhutto landed in Pakistan’s biggest city Karachi, which has been transformed into a fortress by security forces amid fears that Islamist suicide bombers may try to assassinate her.
She came home after Pakistan’s military president Pervez Musharraf agreed to drop the graft charges that drove her from her homeland, as he battles to stay in power in the face of mounting popular anger.
The 54-year-old, the first woman ever to lead an Islamic nation, touched down amid cheers of “Long Live Bhutto” from supporters on the Emirates plane as she returned from exile for the second time in her long political career.
“I am much older, I have learned a lot over the last 20 years but we are still fighting a dictatorship,” Bhutto said when asked to compare with her last homecoming in 1986.
“We want to isolate extremists and build a better Pakistan,” she said.
Bhutto, who has repeatedly angered Muslim hardliners with harsh criticism of Islamic extremists, shrugged off police warnings she would be targeted for assassination by Al-Qaeda or Taliban militants on Pakistani soil.
“I don’t want to think of the risk,” the two-time prime minister, whose brother was shot dead by suspected Pakistan intelligence agents and whose father was hanged in 1979 by military dictator Zia ul-Haq, said before leaving.
“I want to think of the opportunity for my people,” she said.
Bhutto, who remained head of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) during her exile, took off from Dubai accompanied by dozens of supporters wearing scarves in the party colours of red, black and green.
As she left her home, dressed in traditional green tunic, white trousers and headscarf that matched the colours of the Pakistani flag, a supporter laid a Koran on her head in blessing.
More than 20,000 police and troops, backed up by bomb squads with sniffer dogs, patrolled the route of her planned homecoming parade from the airport to the imposing mausoleum of Pakistan’s founding father.
Bhutto will also be protected by bullet-proof screens as she rides in a specially modified shipping container through the streets of Karachi, which has been decked out with colossal billboard portraits of her.
Pakistani police said more than 250,000 people had jammed the streets awaiting her return. Her loyalists put the crowd at more than one million.
Bhutto has vowed to contest general elections in January and win a third term in power as she returns to a Pakistan in the throes of political turmoil, as Musharraf has seen his popularity crash in just the past few months.
The military leader’s bungled attempt to sack the head of the Supreme Court — a move the Court itself later ruled was unconstitutional — set off months of angry street demonstrations.
Seeing his tight grip on power start to loosen, Musharraf turned to Bhutto to bolster his position, pledging to step down as head of the army by November 15 after winning re-election by parliament earlier in October.
The amnesty was seen as a prelude to a power-sharing deal with Musharraf but last week he urged her to delay her return after the Supreme Court ruled that it must validate his election win.
The Supreme Court judge hearing the appeals against his re-election for another five-year term on Thursday said “threats” that Musharraf would declare martial law if it overturns the vote result “have no value for us”.
Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, has become a pivotal ally in the US-led “war on terror” and is seen as a bulwark against Taliban and Al-Qaeda extremism in Pakistan’s tribal areas on the Afghan border.
But his challenge to the Supreme Court and his campaign against Islamic militants — in particular a bloody raid on a militant Islamabad mosque in July — have seriously dented his popularity at home.
But she remains a vastly popular figure, particularly in her home town Karachi. She first returned from exile in 1986, when millions welcomed her back home before she became prime minister the first time.
“We began walking here 12 days ago,” said labourer Dana Ram as he awaited her arrival, “but this is nothing compared with Benazir’s sacrifices for us.”