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'I will get Pak rid of military dictatorship'

The former Pak PM returns home ending 8 yrs of self-imposed exile & vows to end the "military dictatorship".

world Updated: Oct 18, 2007 22:53 IST

Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto on Thursday returned home to a mammoth welcome from tens of thousands of her flag waving ecstatic supporters amid massive security measures, ending eight years of self-imposed exile and vowing to end the "military dictatorship".

Emotionally overcome by the massive and noisy throng at the Karachi airport, Bhutto, 54, shed tears as she stepped out of the Emirates aircraft that flew her from Dubai with hopes of becoming prime minister for a record third time - possibly in association with President Pervez Musharraf, a US ally in the "war on terror".

She lost no time in making clear why she had returned to a country from which she fled in 1999 following a slew of corruption charges that saw her husband end up in prison for at least eight years.

"I will get the country rid of military dictatorship," Bhutto, reportedly wearing a bulletproof jacket, told journalists in her first remarks on landing in Pakistan's biggest city.

"Today my country is facing several threats including insecurity, unemployment, terrorism and hunger," declared the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) chairperson who has ruled the country twice. "I have come back to give people food, clothing and shelter."

Pakistan would need to amend the constitution for Bhutto to be prime minister again as law bars leaders from seeking a third term.

She said earlier in Dubai: "Today, Pakistan is at crossroads. One way leads to dictatorship and the other to democracy. The people who have gathered to welcome me want change... change towards democracy."

As the aircraft touched down at 1.46 pm, thunderous slogans rang out, hailing her from within and outside the airport complex.

One glance at the crowds, Bhutto covered her face with her hands, as if to wipe her tears, and then looked up in a sign of divine thanksgiving.

"I'm grateful to the people, my brothers and sisters, who have come to welcome me in a big numbers," she said, estimating the crowd strength at one million although government ministers were quick to contest the figure.

Massive security arrangements were in place for the homecoming of Bhutto, who faces life threat from extremist forces in Pakistan. Pro-Taliban clerics have threatened to kill her for supporting the US-led war on terror.

The government of President Pervez Musharraf, who has entered into a controversial power sharing deal with her, deployed commandoes to protect Bhutto as she left for the mausoleum of Pakistan founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

"We have arranged deployment of anti-terrorist squad throughout the route from Karachi airport to the Jinnah mausoleum," city police chief Azhar Farooqi told IANS.

Farooqi said that a jamming device, which can jam wireless signals used to explode bombs by terrorists, was also installed on the truck. The jammers make sensors of bombs insensitive.

A military helicopter flew over the airport while Bhutto's plane taxied on the runway. Anti-terrorist police squads took up vantage points along the route from the airport to Jinnah's mausoleum Mazar-e-Quaid.

However, the heavy security precautions and deployment of thousands of security personnel failed to dampen the spirit of huge crowds, who burst firecrackers and danced on the roads, all the time screaming slogans hailing one of Pakistan's most charismatic politicians.

At one time crowds broke into a run near the airport, almost overwhelming an estimated 35,000 security personnel.

Bhutto, the lifelong chairperson of PPP, was taken into a specially modified truck - mounted with a bulletproof glass shield.

The PPP supporters, thousands of whom had reached the airport on motorcycles, cars, trucks and buses, many seated on rooftops, gave their leader a rapturous welcome, as if trying to match what she got in 1986 when she returned home during the military regime of Zia ul-haq. Many had travelled from the interiors of Sindh, the Bhutto family's home province.

Giant sized PPP flags and colourful portraits of Bhutto - who went into self-imposed exile in 1999 after being charged with corruption along with her husband - adorned all major streets of Karachi.

Many of his supporters were dressed in red, black and green - the colours of the PPP. Thousands danced on the streets, visibly overjoyed.

"(I am) excited and overwhelmed," she told journalists who accompanied her on the flight. "I believe in miracles, my returning home is a miracle."

Military ruler Musharraf on Oct 5 issued a National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) under which Bhutto was granted amnesty against a plethora of corruption cases.

But it was clear Bhutto's return was going to cause ruptures even in the opposition ranks upset over her secret deal with Musharraf, who has increasingly become unpopular in the country.

Liaqat Baloch, a leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, pointed to IANS that the government had treated Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister now in exile, shabbily while making Bhutto look like a royal guest.

"She has been extended all the protocol courtesies while Nawaz Sharif was not allowed to enter the country," he said.

Information Minister Tariq Azim gave a spin to her return: "She is welcome as any other citizen of Pakistan. There is no power sharing deal with her. We want to wipe the slate clean and start afresh."

The daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir became one of the first democratically elected female prime ministers in an Islamic country in 1988. Her regime collapsed in 1990.

She again became prime minister in 1993 and ruled for three years. On both occasions, her governance was accompanied by charges of corruption against her and her husband Asif Zardari.

Bhutto left Pakistan in 1999 to live abroad shortly after her conviction by the Supreme Court.