KARACHI, Pakistan, (AP) – Thousands of Benazir Bhutto supporters surged toward Karachi on the eve of the former premier’s return from exile, as she declared any Islamic militant assassin targeting her would “burn in hell.”
Police were readying bomb disposal squads and sealing roads ahead of Bhutto’s planned return to this chaotic city of 15 million people on Thursday, where she hopes 1 million people will greet the end of her eight-year exile.
Negotiations with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf that could see the archrivals team up in a U.S.-friendly alliance to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban have already produced an amnesty covering the corruption cases that made her leave Pakistan in 1999. Bhutto hopes to secure a third term as prime minister after January elections.
“My return heralds for the people of Pakistan the turn of the wheel from dictatorship to democracy,” Bhutto said at a news conference in Dubai, flanked by her two daughters and her husband.
But Bhutto recently courted controversy in Pakistan by saying that she would cooperate with the American military in targeting Osama bin Laden, and authorities here warned that militants could launch suicide attacks and roadside bombings against her.
Asked about such threats, Bhutto said Islam forbids suicide bombings and attacks on her. “Muslims know if they attack a woman they will burn in hell,” she said.
The government of Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital, appealed to Bhutto to abandon plans for a snail-paced 10-mile grand procession into Karachi, saying it would leave her vulnerable.
It said the main threat was from Taliban and al-Qaeda.
“We have informed Ms. Bhutto and her team of the situation and advised them to cut short the program instead of going for a 18-20 hours-long procession as this would be tantamount to inviting trouble,” Sindh Home Secretary Ghulam Muhammad Mohtarem said.
There is sure to be a huge crowd.
With Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) already mobilizing rallies and convoys of supporters expected to arrive from its strongholds across Sindh by late Wednesday, many observers believe more than 100,000 will turn out. The party is predicting there will be more than 1 million.
Vast billboards proclaiming the two-time prime minister as the country’s savior festoon the route from the airport. Thousands of her supporters have already arrived from the city of Multan in neighboring Punjab province and from Pakistan’s part of divided Kashmir, said Waqar Mehdi, a party spokesman.
A shipping container fortified with bulletproof glass is being readied to convey Bhutto through Karachi, and some 3,500 police and paramilitary troops and 5,000 party volunteers will guard the streets, officials say.
“We have taken precautions against suicide bombers and the police are ensuring there are no implanted explosives on the route,” said PPP security adviser, retired general Ahsan Ullah. He expressed satisfaction with authorities’ cooperation.
Overnight, police used shipping containers to block three access roads on the highway leading from the airport that Bhutto will travel, and seven bomb disposal squads would start sweeping the route by late Wednesday, said Mazhar Shahab, a senior city police official.
Bhutto is due to arrive on a commercial flight from Dubai on Thursday afternoon.
Her political future, and the possible alliance with Musharraf, will depend on her party’s showing in the elections.
Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, has seen his popularity plunge since a failed attempt to oust the country’s top judge in the spring. The deal with Bhutto appears aimed at boosting his political base as he vies to extend his rule.
He easily won a vote by lawmakers Oct. 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. If he wins, Musharraf has promised to step down as army chief and restore civilian rule. The government says a caretaker government will hold the polls in January.
The challenge to Musharraf and other politically sensitive cases pending before the court have injected more instability into Pakistan’s already turbulent politics.
Hearings in the case resumed Wednesday in Islamabad. About 2,000 people marched to the court building to express their opposition to Musharraf.