Security tight as Bhutto heads to Pakistan stronghold

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SUKKUR, Oct 27 (Reuters) Hundreds of supporters greeted former prime minister Benazir Bhutto as she flew to her stronghold in southern Pakistan today, days after an assassination attempt that killed 139 people.

Chanting ''Prime Minister Benazir'', the jubilant workers of her Pakistan People's Party forced their way into the Sukkur airport terminal building as the plane carrying Bhutto from Karachi touched down.

Some even climbed trees waving red, green and black party flags.

''Ours is a bold leader. If she is not scared we are also not scared,'' said supporter Imdad Chandio as he jostled with police to make his way into the airport lounge.

Hundreds of police and paramilitary troops were deployed at Sukkur airport during Bhutto's first foray outside Karachi since last week's attack marred her return to Pakistan after eight years of self-imposed exile.

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.

From Sukkur, she will head overland to the village of Garhi Khuda Baksh, near the town of Larkana, to pray at the tomb of her father, which was being guarded by dozens of workers from her supporters wielding AK-47s.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's first popularly elected prime minister, was toppled in 1979 and was later hanged by the military.

SUPPORTERS DEFIANT ''One should not be discouraged or scared by an incident like we had (last week),'' said Javed Karim Chandiyo, a supporter waiting for Bhutto in Larkana. ''If we are scared of such things, the whole (democratic) process will collapse.'' PPP flags and portraits of Bhutto and her father lined the roadside in the agricultural land around Larkana, where farmers were busy harvesting their rice crops.

The government blames the Karachi attack on Islamist militants based in tribal lands bordering 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 was personally involved.

Musharraf granted an amnesty that allowed Bhutto to return to Pakistan without fear of prosecution in graft cases hanging over her from the 1990s. 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 LPB KN1108

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