Pakistan buzzing ahead of Bhutto's homecoming 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 inspired 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 pennants of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) aloft.

Leaders of the PPP predicted that a million people will turn out to greet her, as supporters carrying red, black and green party 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, and today spoke of their need to fight militancy together.

''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.

''I am very proud of what my mother is doing, and not only my mother, but what my whole family is doing,'' said Bakhtawar, Bhutto's elder daughter told the news conference.

Police plan to deploy up to 8,000 officers for Bhutto's 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 ia-ul-Haq, the general 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.

Today, the Supreme Court reconvened 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 Oct. 6.

Proceedings were adjourned until next week after opposition lawyers requested more judges be added to the bench.

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

REUTERS PD ND1638

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