Karachi, Oct 18 (UNI) Disregarding terrorist threats to her life and official requests to postpone her return, former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto today made an emotional homecoming after eight years of self-imposed exile.
An unprecedented welcome greeted the two-time Prime Minister and leader of the Pakistan Peoples' Party (PPP) -- the country's biggest political party -- with over a lakh party workers and sympathisers thronging the airport and the streets of Pakistan's financial capital, while the PPP's red, green and black flag and gigantic portraits of Ms Bhutto were everywhere.
The PPP chairperson, who arrived here from Dubai on Emirates flight EK606, landed at around 1345 hrs PST. She was accompanied by party vice chairman Makhdoom Amin Fahim and other senior leaders including Nahid Khan and Rehman Malik, and party workers. Her younger sister Sanam was also accompanying her, while her husband Asif Ali Zardari and children remained in Dubai.
Clad in a light green shalwar kameez, and wearing a white scarf over her head, Ms Bhutto broke into tears as she took the first steps on the tarmac after passing under the Koran and kissing the holy book.
Ms Bhutto, who will lead her party in the coming elections, seemed moved by the response to her return. ''Now that the people have given their verdict, it is necessary that the elections should be free and fair,'' she told mediapersons in a brief interaction inside the airport terminal.
During the flight, she thanked individually the party workers and media representatives present in the plane. ''I am very excited, very happy and very proud,'' she said, as the plane prepared to land.
After the plane landed, she directed the workers to keep sitting and let the media people go out first.
More than one lakh people had gathered around the airport to welcome their leader, while some 20,000 security officials, including police and paramilitary rangers have been deployed on the roads from the airport to Ms Bhutto's official 70-Clifton residence.
Police marksmen had taken up positions on rooftops and flyovers, while bomb disposal squads were sweeping the former premier's route on her planned marathon procession from Karachi airport to Jinnah's mausoleum.
The PPP chief was to lead a procession on a bulletproof truck which will go via the Jinnah mausoleum to the Bilawal House.
Ms Bhutto had asserted in Dubai yesterday that she would be returning home as per schedule despite suggestions by the government to postpone her return.
''I have made a commitment to my people that I will return on October 18. I will honour my word. Yes, I am going. I cannot be separated from Pakistan, nor can Pakistan be from me. The exile was a temporary phase,'' she said at a news conference there. Mindful of the threat to her life from al Qaeda and other radical organisations, the Pakistan government said it had made arrangements to provide her foolproof security.
''The government is conscious of the threat to Benazir and hax issued instructions to the provincial government to ensure foolproof security and make comprehensive security plans when she arrived in Karachi'' Interior Ministry spokesperson Brig (retd) Javed Iqbal Cheema said, adding that retired police officer Maj Imtiaz Hussain has already been nominated as the security officer to the former prime minister.
The government was also concerned about the 'assassination threat' issued by the tribal militant commander Baitullah Mehsud.
However, PPP leaders said their leader would be protected by one million supporters estimated to receive her. ''It is a mixture of our own diehard supporters who will be surrounding her to keep her safe, and the administration, which has promised foolproof security,'' PPP Senator Safdar Abbasi said.
Ms Bhutto would be behind bullet-proof screens as she rides a specially modified 20-foot shipping container attached to the back of a lorry through the city. Up to 20,000 police and paramilitary troops would be deployed for her arrival - 8,000 to 10,000 on the route itself and another 10,000 elsewhere in Karachi city.
She would be surrounded by three separate security cordons. The outermost will prevent all access to her lorry, a moving platform for journalists and about 10 cars for her senior party workers. In the second, plain-clothed and uniformed officers will ride and among the party cars. And the innermost cordon will be security officials with Ms Bhutto on her truck.
She would address her supporters at Jinnah's mausoleum from behind bullet-proof screens.