Karachi braces for Bhutto's return

Thousands gather in Pakistani city for homecoming after 8-year exile

October 18, 2007|By Laura King | Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

KARACHI, Pakistan -- By foot, bus and bicycle, thousands of fervent followers of Benazir Bhutto converged yesterday on Karachi, preparing to welcome the former prime minister home today after eight years in exile.

Bhutto's expected return to this sprawling, chaotic port city adds a complex new dimension to Gen. Pervez Musharraf's months-long struggle to retain his presidential powers. Bhutto and the general have reached agreement on some elements of a power-sharing alliance, but deep mistrust persists on both sides.

As preparations for Bhutto's homecoming intensified, the Supreme Court began hearing a legal challenge in the capital, Islamabad, to Musharraf's election by Pakistani lawmakers to a new term. If Musharraf wins, he has promised to step down as army chief and serve as a civilian president, a move that would cost him considerable power.

If the Oct. 6 vote is declared invalid, it is widely feared that Musharraf will respond by declaring martial law.

Musharraf had urged Bhutto to stay away until after the court delivers its verdict, which could take days or weeks. But she rejected any delay, voicing determination to return and lead her party in parliamentary elections that are to take place by early next year.

"My return heralds for the people of Pakistan the turn in the wheel from dictatorship to democracy, from exploitation to empowerment, from violence to peace," she told journalists in Dubai, where she has maintained a home in exile.

At the news conference, Bhutto brushed aside security concerns, although she acknowledged threats against her by Islamic militants and others. "No one can be sure what will happen in Pakistan," she said.

Thousands of police and paramilitary troops were being deployed in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, and bomb squads began sweeping the 10-mile route from the airport to the city center last night. Bhutto was to travel on a small mobile stage fitted with bulletproof glass.

Party leaders said they expected up to 1 million people to line the procession route, which was festooned with banners and billboards featuring larger-than-life images of the 54-year-old politician. Posters bearing the green, black and red colors of her Pakistan People's Party fluttered from lampposts and hung from tree branches.

At the party's headquarters, disheveled followers showed off broken blisters they said came from making the trek on foot from outlying villages to welcome her.

"I would give my life for her, so to walk for five days was nothing," said Shahkar Lal Koli, 27.

Despite such displays of devotion, Bhutto's popularity has been tarnished by her political compromises with the highly unpopular Musharraf, combined with lingering public anger over allegations of graft and corruption that twice led to the dismissal of her government.

Earlier this month, Musharraf signed into law a bill granting her amnesty against corruption charges. But the measure is under court challenge, and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has hinted it could be rescinded.

Following her arrival in Karachi, Bhutto was to travel to the family's ancestral home of Larkana, deep in the interior of Sindh province. There, she has had an enormous mausoleum built to honor her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was executed in 1979.

The choice of Karachi as the venue for Bhutto's homecoming raised fears because of the city's long history of political violence.

More than 45 people were killed in May during clashes between Bhutto supporters and a pro-Musharraf party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement. The MQM promised that its followers would not disrupt the homecoming.

"The people will protect her," said Surendar Valasai, a party activist. "At least, this is what we hope and believe."

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times. Wire services contributed to this article.

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