Supporters flock to Karachi for Bhutto's return

Thousands of supporters are expected to greet former prime minister Benazir Bhutto when she returns to Pakistan following an eight-year self-imposed exile.

Thousands of supporters are expected to greet former prime minister Benazir Bhutto when she returns to Pakistan Thursday following an eight-year self-imposed exile to lead her party in national elections.

A billboard welcoming former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto stands on a roadside near the international airport in Karachi on Wednesday. ((David Guttenfelder/Associated Press))

Police mobilized in preparation for her controversial return, sealing off roads and readying bomb disposal squads amid fears Islamic militants could try to kill her.

Her arrival in the city of Karachi Thursday will launch a campaign she hopes will lead to her third term as prime minister after the January elections.

Bhutto left Pakistan in 1999 to escape corruption charges, which were dropped under a deal with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Her Pakistan People's Party hopes to see one million supporters gather to greet her in Karachi.Billboards have been posted on the route from the airport advertising her as the country's saviour.

Thousands have already begun arriving in the bustling city of 15 million.

But the planned procession into Karachi worried the government in the southern Sindh province. It saidthe snail's pace of the convoy may leave Bhutto vulnerable to suicide attacks and roadside bombs.

A statement from the Sindh home secretary said there wasalso arisk of mass killings of supporters and stampedes. The main threat, it said, was from the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

"We have informed Ms. Bhutto and her team of the situation and advised them to cut short the program instead of going for a 18-20 hours-long procession as this would be tantamount to inviting trouble," Ghulam Muhammad Mohtarem said.

A bulletproof glass container was being readied to transport Bhutto. Thousands of police and paramilitary troops, plus thousands more party volunteers, were to guard the streets, officials said.

Not everyone, however,welcomes Bhutto's return. Her cousin, Mumtaz Bhutto, has condemned her for making a deal with Musharraf to have corruption charges dropped.

"For Benazir to come and prop up this failed dictator is a very, very serious act of hostility against the people of the country," he said.

Doubts about return

Even some supporters of Bhutto have doubts about her return, wanting her to stand up to the military and Islamic extremists who have threatened to kill her.

Musharraf urged Bhutto to delay her return until after the Supreme Court rules on his own eligibility for a new five-year presidential term.

The court is due to resume hearings Wednesday.

Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, swept a presidential election by lawmakers last week.

If the court rules in his favour, he has promised to relinquish his command of the army.

Bhutto and Musharraf are eyeing a possible alliance if her party fares well in the parliamentary election.

With files from the Associated Press