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Bhutto Plans October Return to Pakistan

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We've been hearing a lot lately about Pakistan's former prime ministers. And today it was announced in Islamabad that one of them, Benazir Bhutto, is returning home next month. Bhutto left Pakistan in 1999 amid allegations of corruption. Earlier this week, another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, returned to Pakistan. Within hours, he was deported to Saudi Arabia.

In recent months, Bhutto has been trying to nail down a power-sharing agreement with Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf. And her supporters today were shouting out her name at the news that she was coming back.

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NPR's Philip Reeves is in Islamabad and that's what we're hearing behind you, right, Phil?

(Soundbite of chanting)

PHILIP REEVES: Yes, that's right. Those are party supporters behind me. They're celebrating the announcement that Benazir Bhutto is coming back on the 18th of October. She's going to return to the city of Karachi. Last time in the mid-80s when she made a fairly triumphant return to Pakistan, a very triumphant return to Pakistan, she came to the city of Lahore. But this time, she's chosen Karachi. And not the capital, Islamabad, which of course is where Nawaz Sharif attempted to return to earlier this week.

MONTAGNE: Now, would the same thing happen to Benazir Bhutto when she returns? Any chance of her being deported?

REEVES: No, there isn't. One of the reasons Sharif was deported is because he had made an agreement with Saudi - which was brokered by Saudi Arabia to stay in exile for 10 years and that term wasn't up. No such agreement exists in the case of Benazir Bhutto.

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The government said she can return but, of course, there is the possibility that when she arrives, she will face corruption charges.

MONTAGNE: What about this deal that they've been trying to work between Bhutto and Musharraf? A part of that had to do with getting rid of those corruption charges?

REEVES: Indeed, but the deal hasn't been made. And we've been talking in the aftermath of this announcement to some of the senior party officials here. And they're adamant about that. There's no deal yet. The door appears still to be opened. But remember, they've been negotiating over this for months and so far they haven't reached an agreement. So it is looking fairly unlikely.

There are a number of sticking points. One of them, of course, is the question of whether Pervez Musharraf can remain both president and army chief of staff. And another one, a key one actually, is Benazir Bhutto's demand that he change the law so as that he lifts a ban - which he actually imposed in order to keep her out of office - which stops her from being prime minister for a third time.

His party, Musharraf's party, is strongly against the idea of her becoming prime minister again and they've made their feelings about that quite clear in the last few days.

MONTAGNE: Well, just one thing. There had been a lot of criticism about this what seems to be a back room deal, people saying it was anti-democratic, in any event.

REEVES: Yes. It's seen as anti-democratic particularly by the supporters of Nawaz Sharif and other parties that adamantly opposed to the idea of negotiating with the military government and of course through Pakistan's intelligence forces, who've been conducting some of these talks with Benazir Bhutto.

But the argument goes on Bhutto's side that this is a transition, and that if you want to transition to democracy, you have to do so step by step gradually. Had she been able to persuade General Musharraf to take off his uniform, she would have shown - she would have argued to the outside world - that that's an example of how you achieve this slow progress towards democracy.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much, Philip.

REEVES: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Philip Reeves, speaking from Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.