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October 18, 2007
Bhutto Receives a Hero's Welcome
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto returned home from eight years in exile today and was met by thousands of enthusiastic supporters at the airport:
Bhutto, who fled Pakistan in the face of corruption charges in 1999, has chosen to come home during a period of particular uncertainty in Pakistan, as the popularity of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has waned and violence by Islamic radicals has been on the rise. Bhutto's deal with Musharraf hinges on the President stepping down as Chief of Staff of the army - a move he has not made yet. Musharraf's election to the presidency is being challenged in the nation's top court which should rule on the challenge in the next week or so. In the meantime, Bhutto is taking something of a risk returning at this point. Musharraf promised the religious parties in 2002 that he would resign as army chief and then reneged on that pledge. He could easily do the same thing here thus leaving Bhutto open to being prosecuted for the corruption charges that caused her to flee Pakistan in 1999.
Authorities have mounted a massive security operation to protect the 54-year-old from possible attack by militants. But the precautions failed to dampen the spirit of huge crowds forming in Karachi.
Hundreds of buses and other vehicles festooned with billboards welcoming her back were parked bumper-to-bumper along the boulevard from the airport to the city center. A huge red, green and black flag of her Pakistan People's Party hung from one apartment block overlooking the route.
Supporters including representatives of Pakistan's minority Christian and Hindu communities and Baluch tribesmen with flowing white turbans, walked toward the airport, while groups of men performed traditional dances, beat drums or shook maracas along the way.
Pakistan is a different country since Bhutto's last term as Prime Minister. Musharraf's alliance with some of the religious parties have made them more powerful and while they have approved her return to Pakistan, it is unclear how they will react if her party wins the parliamentary elections in a couple of months. But Bhutto is a deft politician with a knack for survival which should help her deal with the conservatives.