Bhutto prays at father's grave, security tight

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GARHI KHUDA BAKSH, Pakistan, Oct 27 (Reuters) Thousands of party faithful today greeted former prime minister Benazir Bhutto as she visited her stronghold in southern Pakistan, days after an assassination bid that killed 139 people.

Chanting ''Long Live Bhutto'', around 4,000 jubilant supporters of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) cheered and clapped as Bhutto arrived in a bullet-proof vehicle at her father's vast mausoleum in their ancestral village of Garhi Khuda Baksh, near the town of Larkana in Sindh province.

Standing through the sunroof behind her secretary, Bhutto -- who returned to Pakistan last week after eight years of self-exile -- waved to crowds who were prevented from approaching the vehicle by security staff wielding AK-47s.

A huge Bhutto portrait hung from a pylon, and green, red and black PPP flags fluttered as her convoy whipped up a dust storm.

Bhutto draped a shawl inscribed with Islamic verses and sprinkled rose petals on her father's grave. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's first popularly elected prime minister, was toppled by the military in 1977 and later hanged.

She then sat by the tomb, reciting Koranic verses.

''I feel very emotional. I wanted to visit the tomb of my father, the leader of the people, and offer prayers,'' Bhutto told reporters afterwards, before she was whisked to her family home flanked by paramilitaries in jeeps mounted with machine guns.

''There is still danger of attack, but Allah can protect everyone and I am not scared of these people (militants),'' she added, saying she now felt better about her security. ''It was an attack on me, on the Pakistan People's Party leadership and on democracy.'' KISSED KORAN Earlier, as she left the plane, Bhutto kissed a copy of the Koran and a man wrapped a traditional Sindhi shawl around her shoulders.

She boarded a Landcruiser and waved at supporters who showered her with rose petals as she began the drive to Larkana.

Supporters dressed in traditional pyjama-like shalwar kameez chased her convoy on foot.

''Ours is a bold leader. If she is not scared, we are also not scared,'' said Imdad Chandio as he jostled with police.

Hundreds of police and paramilitary troops were deployed at Sukkur airport for Bhutto's first foray outside Karachi since last week's attack marred her return to Pakistan after eight years away to avoid corruption charges.

At least one suicide bomber, possibly two, attacked her convoy in Karachi as it travelled slowly through a crowd of hundreds of thousands of supporters.

''One should not be discouraged or scared by an incident like we had (last week),'' said Javed Karim Chandiyo, a banker from Karachi.

''If we are scared of such things, the whole (democratic) process will collapse.'' PPP flags and portraits of Bhutto and her father lined the roads in the countryside around Garhi Khuda Baksh, where farmers were busy harvesting their rice crops.

The government blames the Karachi attack on Islamist militants based in tribal lands bordering neighbouring Afghanistan, where al Qaeda and the Taliban are entrenched.

Bhutto suspects political allies of President Pervez Musharraf were also plotting against her, although she says she has no reason to believe he personally was involved.

AMNESTY Musharraf granted an amnesty that allowed Bhutto to return to Pakistan without fear of prosecution in graft cases hanging over her from the 1990. There is speculation the pair could end up sharing power after national elections due by early January.

Such a union would be welcomed by the United States, which is worried by rising militancy in nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Yesterday troops battled militants near the stronghold of a Taliban-style movement in northwestern Pakistan a day after a suicide bomber killed 21 people in the area, 17 of them soldiers.

Violence has escalated across Pakistan since July, when militants scrapped a peace deal and the army stormed a radical mosque in the capital, Islamabad.

REUTERS SG ND1518

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