Three Pakistani groups plotting attacks on Bhutto-official

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KARACHI, Oct 17 (Reuters) Three groups linked to al Qaeda and Pakistan's Taliban are plotting suicide attacks against former prime minister Benazir Bhutto when she returns to Karachi tomorrow to end eight years of self-exile, an official said.

Bhutto, who is coming home to lead her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) into a national election due in early January, told a news conference in Dubai she was aware of the threats against her but would not be cowed into staying away.

''There are intelligence reports that three different groups have plans to carry out attacks on Bhutto,'' Ghulam Mohammad Mohtaram, Home Secretary of Sindh province, told Reuters on the eve of Bhutto's return.

Some 20,000 government security personnel were being deployed along the route from Karachi's airport to the site near the tomb of Pakistan's founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah where Bhutto planned to address a rally, Mohtaram said.

The official said the suicide attacks were being planned by Pakistani jihadi groups linked to al Qaeda and a Pakistani Taliban group headed by Baitullah Mehsud.

Mehsud's fighters are already holding more than 200 Pakistani troops hostage in Waziristan, a tribal region on the border with Afghanistan, having captured them in late August.

Bhutto has said that if she was in power she would allow U S forces to strike against al Qaeda targets in Pakistani territory, if her own forces were unable to carry out an attack.

Huge crowds are expected to turn out to welcome back the leader of Pakistan's largest opposition party, though many followers are disillusioned by Bhutto's rapprochement with President Pervez Musharraf.

There are strong expectations that the two liberal-leaning leaders will forge a post-election power-sharing agreement.

The United States is believed to have quietly encouraged an alliance between Bhutto and General Musharraf in order to keep nuclear-armed Pakistan pro-Western and committed to fighting al Qaeda and supporting NATO's efforts to stabilise Afghanistan.

REUTERS RSA RN2308

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