Benazir Bhutto 224.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Benazir Bhutto made a dramatic return to Pakistan on Thursday, greeting tens of thousands of cheering supporters amid massive security and launching what she hopes will be a stunning political comeback after eight years of exile.
Bhutto wept as she emerged from a plane that brought her from Dubai to Karachi. At the airport, she climbed aboard the roof of a truck and began a triumphant procession through Pakistan's largest city.
Asked at the airport how it felt to be home, Bhutto, wearing a white headscarf and clutching prayer beads in her right hand, said it felt "good. Very good."
Bhutto, a two-time prime minister who fled Pakistan in the face of corruption charges in 1999, has returned at a moment of uncertainty in this nuclear-armed nation, which is struggling to counter spreading Islamic militancy.
With parliamentary elections due in January, she hopes to campaign for a record third premiership. However, analysts say she has risked her popularity by compromising with its unpopular military ruler, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
Authorities deployed thousands of security forces to protect the 54-year-old leader of the secular, liberal Pakistan's People Party from possible attack by Islamic radicals. But the precautions failed to deter her party from mounting a spirited street party.
Hundreds of buses had converged on Karachi overnight, disgorging crowds of supporters ranging from members of Pakistan's minority Christian and Hindu communities to Baluch tribesmen with flowing white turbans.
Groups of men banged on drums, shook maracas and performed traditional dances along her planned route to the tomb of Pakistan's founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, where she planned to make a speech.
Crowds chanted "Prime minister Benazir!" and waved her party's red, black and green flags as her truck inched through the crowd, covering just 100 meters in the first hour.
Bhutto, squeezed between other party bigwigs at the front of the truck rather than in a bulletproof cubicle toward the rear, waved and smiled.
Azad Bhatti, a 35-year-old poultry farmer from the southern city of Hyderabad said he had "blind faith" in Bhutto's leadership.
"When Benazir Bhutto is in power there is no bomb blast because she provides jobs and there is no frustration among the people," he said. "whatever she thinks is for the betterment of the people."
Bhutto paved her route back in negotiations with Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup. Musharraf is promising to give up his command of Pakistan's powerful army if he secures a new term as president.
The talks have yielded an amnesty covering the corruption cases that made Bhutto leave Pakistan in the first place, and could see the archrivals eventually team up to fight al-Qaida and the7 Taliban.
Before boarding her flight from Dubai, Bhutto told reporters that her homecoming felt like a miracle.
"I hope that, as this miracle is happening, that a miracle will happen for the impoverished and poverty-stricken people of Pakistan who are desperate for change, who want safety, who want security, who want opportunity, who want empowerment and employment," she said.
Bhutto, whose two elected governments between 1988 and 1996 were toppled amid allegations of corruption and mismanagement, hopes to lead her party to victory in parliamentary elections in January.
Many Pakistani are skeptical that Bhutto can meet her promises, which include redoubling Pakistan's efforts against extremism.
"People are intelligent now, they don't buy this rubbish," said Kamran Saleen, a 38-year-old businessman who lives near Karachi airport. "They know politicians can't make much difference."
The crowd seemed smaller than the 1 million Bhutto claimed had turned out to welcome her. Karachi police chief Azhar Farooqi said at least 75,000 Bhutto supporters were in the city, and government spokesman Muhammad Ali Durrani described the event as a flop.
"It is the PPP workers' response and not the public response and even the workers' response is much less than what she was expecting," Durrani said.
Authorities had urged her to cover the 16 kilometers to Jinnah's tomb by helicopter to reduce the risk of attack. Police said they were using electronic jammers to prevent anyone detonating a remote-controlled bomb near her convoy. But Bhutto, hated by radical Islamists because she supports the U.S.-led war on terrorism, brushed off the concerns.
"I am not scared. I am thinking of my mission," she told reporters on the plane. "This is a movement for democracy because we are under threat from extremists and militants."
Musharraf has seen his popularity plunge recently, and the rapprochement with Bhutto - who he previously dismissed as corrupt and incompetent - appears aimed at salvaging his political base.
He was easily re-elected as president by lawmakers Oct. 6. However, the Supreme Court is examining the legality of the victory.