Karachi, AFP—Pakistan’s former military ruler Pervez Musharraf returned home on Sunday after more than four years in exile, defying a Taliban death threat to contest historic general elections.
Hundreds of well-wishers gathered at Karachi airport, beating drums, dancing, waving green flags with pictures of Musharraf and Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and showering rose petals in anticipation of his arrival.
The 69-year-old ex-dictator says he is prepared to risk any danger to stand for election on May 11, in what will be the first democratic transition of power in the history of a nuclear-armed country dominated by periods of military rule.
But Musharraf is not thought likely to win more than a couple of seats for his All Pakistan Muslim League party and he remains a highly controversial figure.
He seized power in a bloodless coup as army chief in 1999 and left the country after resigning in 2008, when Asif Ali Zardari was elected president after the murder of his wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
Musharraf was forced to scrap plans to hold a public rally at Jinnah’s tomb in Karachi over security concerns, after the Taliban threatened to dispatch a squad of suicide bombers to assassinate him.
He was whisked away by airport security after his scheduled Emirates flight landed from Dubai, but was expected to address the crowd at around 5:00 pm (1200 GMT).
His official Facebook and Twitter accounts provided an upbeat commentary on his return, complete with photographs. An AFP reporter said supporters on the flight shouted “long live Musharraf”, annoying some of the regular passengers.
Musharraf, who has been granted protective bail to lift the threat of immediate arrest on his return to Pakistan, told reporters before leaving Dubai that he was “not feeling nervous” but admitted to some concerns.
“I am feeling concerned about the unknown . . . there are a lot of unknown factors of terrorism and extremism, unknown factors of legal issue, unknown factors of how much I will be able to perform (in the elections),” he said.
In one of the legal cases that has long ensnared Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated when he was running the country in December 2007, three months after she returned to Pakistan from her own self-imposed exile.
Karachi, a city of 18 million, is already in the throes of record political and ethnic violence. On March 3, a huge car bomb killed 50 people in a mainly Shi’ite Muslim area of the city, the worst single attack in the city for years.
At the airport, local police official A.D. Chaudhry said 1,000 well-wishers had turned out although an AFP reporter said the number appeared about half that.
Supporters chanted “Long Live Musharraf” and his catchphrase, “Pakistan First”. Young boys wore “Pakistan First” T-shirts emblazoned with his picture.
Wasim Ansari, a television actor and Musharraf lookalike who stars in satirical shows mocking the ex-dictator, was among the crowd.
“Whatever popularity I have gained today is because of Musharraf. I regard him as my leader and would do anything for him,” Ansari joked to AFP.
Security was tight with police, paramilitary and traffic police deployed in large numbers at the airport, where there was also a sizable media contingent.
On Saturday, a suicide bomber killed 17 Pakistani soldiers by ramming a water tanker packed with explosives into a checkpoint in the tribal district of North Waziristan on the northwestern Afghan border.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but North Waziristan is a known stronghold of the Taliban and operatives linked to Al-Qaeda. Pakistani troops have been fighting homegrown insurgents in the tribal belt for years.
As ruler, Musharraf escaped three Al-Qaeda assassination attempts. He became a prominent target for Islamist extremists after making Pakistan a key US ally in the “war on terror” after the 9/11 attacks.
Musharraf is wanted by the courts over Bhutto’s death, the 2006 death of Akbar Bugti, a Baluch rebel leader in the southwest, and for the 2007 sacking and illegal arrest of judges.
Bhutto’s son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who is chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party, has accused Musharraf of her murder.
In 2010 a UN report said Bhutto’s death could have been prevented and accused Musharraf’s government of failing to provide her with adequate protection. His administration blamed the assassination on the Pakistani Taliban.