Security tight as Bhutto heads to Pak stronghold

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Sukkur, Oct 27: Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto set off for her ancestral village in southern Pakistan today, security heavy in the wake of an assassination attempt at a Karachi welcome rally last week that killed 139 people.

Flanked by party supporters and wearing her trademark white headscarf, Bhutto boarded a plane in Karachi which took off bound for city of Sukkur, her first trip since the attack marred her return to Pakistan after eight years of self-imposed exile.

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From Sukkur, she will head overland to the village of Garhi Khuda Baksh to pray at the tomb of her father, which was guarded by dozens of workers from her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) wielding AK-47s.

The airport in Sukkur was on high alert, bristling with paramilitaries. Cars were forced to park well away from the building ahead of Bhutto's arrival.

''It is a great day. Our leader is coming to the town,'' said Karachi banker Javed Karim Chandiyo, standing by the roadside near the city of Larkana to welcome the opposition leader.

Chandiyo was at the October 18 rally when at least one suicide bomber, possibly two, attacked her convoy 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 on October 18,'' he added. ''If we are scared of such things, the whole (democratic) process will collapse.'' Red, green and black PPP flags 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 involved.

General 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.


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