Karachi: Former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto ended eight years of self-exile on 18 October, returning to Karachi where more than 100,000 supporters poured onto the city’s streets to welcome her home.
“I am thankful to God, I am very happy that I’m back in my country and I was dreaming of this day,” a sobbing Bhutto told Reuters as she disembarked an Emirates flight from Dubai.
Bhutto returned to lead her Pakistan People’s Party into national elections meant to return her country to civilian rule. For years Bhutto had vowed to return to Pakistan to end military dictatorship, yet she is coming back as a potential ally for President Pervez Musharraf, the army chief who took power in a 1999 coup.
Before saying goodbye to her two daughters and husband, Asif Ali Zardari in Dubai, Bhutto described Pakistan as being at a crossroads between democracy and dictatorship.
Musharraf is going through his weakest period, and there is strong speculation he will end up sharing power with Bhutto after national elections due in early January.
“Now that the people have given their verdict, it is necessary that the elections should be free and fair,” Bhutto told reporters in the airport terminal.
Dressed in a green shalwar kameez (loose tunic and trousers), her head covered by a white scarf, she passed under the Koran, kissed the Muslim holy book, and stepped onto the tarmac where hundreds of armed airport security personnel stood guard.
The United States is believed to have quietly encouraged their alliance in order to keep nuclear-armed Pakistan pro-Western and committed to fighting al Qaeda and supporting NATO’s efforts to stabilise Afghanistan.
While the rest of Pakistan was transfixed by Bhutto’s homecoming, Musharraf spent the morning at his army offices in Rawalpindi, with no official engagements scheduled, an aide said.
Bhutto’s return pleased investors in a Karachi Stock Exchange (KSE) whose main index has gained 47% this year.
“There is a feeling that the political scenario will stabilise now and there will be consistent economic policies,” said Muzzamil Mussani, dealer at JS Global Capital Ltd as the index hit a life high of 14,802.61 points, up over 1%.
Some 20,000 security personnel have been deployed to provide protection against threatened suicide bomb attacks by militants.
Intelligence reports suggested at least three jihadi groups linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban were plotting suicide attacks, according to a provincial official.
“She has an agreement with America. We will carry out attacks on Benazir Bhutto as we did on General Pervez Musharraf,” Haji Omar, a Taliban commander in the Waziristan tribal region on the Afghan border, told Reuters by satellite telephone.
Bhutto’s procession was expected to take several hours edging through crowds to a venue close to the tomb of Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, for a rally.
Muhammad Ali, a 25 year-old office worker from Larkana, a town in Sindh province where the Bhutto feudal home is located, hitched a lift to Karachi to see a leader idolised by his family.
“I have never seen her in real life before. I love Bhutto and her family, and so do all my relatives,” Ali said.
Red, black and green flags of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party festooned streets and billboards displayed giant images of Bhutto’s face.
Musharraf has already granted an amnesty to protect Bhutto from corruption charges brought by the government of Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister he overthrew and later exiled.
But the Supreme Court is challenging Musharraf’s right to bestow an amnesty, it is also hearing challenges to the president’s right to have stood for re-election while still army chief in a ballot he won easily on 6 October, even though he has promised to be sworn in as a civilian leader.