Bhutto ready for Pakistan return on Thursday

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DUBAI, Oct 17 (Reuters) Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto said she would return to Pakistan tomorrow to end eight years of self-exile and lead her party into national elections despite threats of al Qaeda suicide attacks.

''Tomorrow at this time we will be on board the plane for Karachi, which is a day that I and all the people in Pakistan who love democracy and who believe in fundamental human rights have been waiting for,'' Bhutto said in Dubai today.

Pakistan's biggest city was gearing up for her arrival.

Billboards bearing iconic images of Bhutto smiling beneath a trademark white scarf loomed over downtown Karachi, while youths on motorcycles zipped through suburbs with PPP pennants aloft.

Leaders of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) predicted that a million people will turn out to greet her, as supporters bearing red, black and green PPP banners streamed into Karachi from villages in the flat, arid hinterland of Sindh province.

Despite being out of power since 1996, the charismatic Bhutto, 54, remains one of the most recognisable women politicians in the world, having been prime minister twice and the first female leader of a Muslim nation.

The United States is believed to have quietly encouraged an alliance between President Pervez Musharraf and Bhutto to keep nuclear-armed Pakistan's government moderate and pro-Western.

But, the timing of Bhutto's return is awkward for General Musharraf, who sees her as both a rival and potential ally after a general election due in early January.

ALLIES AGAINST ISLAMIST MILITANCY Bhutto has ignored Musharraf's requests to delay her return, yet today she spoke of the need for them to overcome differences in order to work together to fight militancy.

''I think both the sides recognise that it's the future of Pakistan that is at stake,'' Bhutto told a news conference, flanked by her two daughters and her husband, Asif Zardari.

Bhutto said she had received threats from Pakistani and Arab militants, and warned that any suicide bomber who attacked a woman would ''burn in hell'' as the act violated Islamic law.

Police plan to deploy up to 8,000 officers to guard her journey from Karachi's airport to a rally near the tomb of Pakistan's founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah -- a fitting venue for a woman whose history is entwined with the country's torrid past.

Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's first popularly elected prime minister, was overthrown and hanged, while her two brothers were killed in mysterious circumstances, one gunned down in Karachi, the other found dead in a French Riviera hotel.

She first came to power after military dictator Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, the man who ousted her father, was killed in a plane crash in 1988. Both her governments were brought down amid allegations of corruption and ineptitude.

COURT KEEPS MUSHARRAF WAITING By holding a dialogue with a general who came to power in a coup eight years ago, Bhutto could lose support at the polls.

Musharraf's popularity has plummeted this year, and the Supreme Court plans to hear challenges against the amnesty he has granted Bhutto to protect her from old corruption charges.

The Supreme Court reconvened today a hearing on challenges to Musharraf's right to have stood for re-election while still army chief in a vote he won easily on October 6.

The bench hearing the case has been enlarged to 11 judges, and proceedings are expected to drag on. Musharraf, whose current term expires on November 15, has been barred from claiming five more years in power until the court decides.

Though he has said he will step down as army chief if re-elected, there is speculation that Musharraf will invoke emergency powers or martial law if the court blocks him.

Opposition lawyer Tariq Mehmood was not optimistic that the court would rule against Musharraf, although it has been regarded as hostile since the president's failed attempt to oust Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in March.

''We should not expect anything against Musharraf. It seems difficult,'' Mehmood told Reuters outside the court. ''But if there's law, if there's a constitution in the country, as they claim, there's no option except disqualification.'' REUTERS PD BD1543

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