Bhutto receives historic welcome amid tight security

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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.

Tens of thousands of people thronged the airport in Karachi to accord historic welcome to Ms Bhutto when she arrived here.

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.

More than 250,000 supporters, dancing wildly to drumbeats and chanting full throated slogans of ''long live Bhutto'' and ''Bhutto is our Prime Minister'' gathered at the airport to greet their leader, who is learnt to have achieved some progress in negotiations for a power sharing deal with President Pervez Musharraf.

''I have come here to serve my people,'' she told reporters, who accompanied her from Dubai in an Emirates airlines flight EK-606.

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.

Ms Bhutto said she was not expecting such a rousing welcome for which she is greatful to the people of Pakistan.

''Pakistan is my agenda and I would like to put this nation on the path of rapid progress and prosperity,'' she added.

Ms Bhutto, a two-time first woman prime minister of the Islamic world, had left Pakistan in early 1999 after registration of corruption cases against her by government of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted from power in a bloodless coup in October of the same year.

The former premier landed in Karachi amid tight security blanket all over the port city with some 20,000 security officials including police and paramilitary rangers deployed on the main roads from the airport to Bhutto's official 70-Clifton residence.

She boarded a bullet-proof truck along with top PPP leaders including PPP 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.

Ms Bhutto, however, preferred to stand ahead the bullet proof shield ignoring guidelines issued to her party high command.

She returned home almost two weeks after a presidential ordinance gave amnesty to her in several graft cases. But, the Supreme Court has subjected any benefits drawn from the decree to decision on at least five petitions that challenged the ordinance, called National Reconciliation Ordinance.

General Musharraf and many of his ministers had advised Ms Bhutto to put off her return plan. Some of the ministers also cited security reasons but she declined to adhere to the advice.

Ms Bhutto is expected to reach mausoleum of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah sometime early tomorrow morning and she would address her supporters at Jinnah's mausoleum from behind bullet-proof screens, her party officials said.

UNI

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