Explosions Mar Bhutto's Return to Pakistan
Two explosions rocked a convoy carrying former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who returned to Pakistan Thursday after eight years in self-imposed exile.
Police said neither Bhutto nor anyone riding with her was hurt, but witnesses reported seeing dozens of dead and wounded. More than 100 people were reportedly killed or injured.
Karachi police chief Azhar Farooqi told Dawn News that Bhutto was rushed from the area under contingency plans.
"She was evacuated very safely and is now in Bilawal House," Farooqi said, referring to Bhutto's residence in Karachi.
Authorities had urged her to travel in Karachi — Pakistan's largest city — by helicopter to reduce the risk of attack. But Bhutto, who is hated by radical Islamists because she supports the U.S.-led war on terrorism, brushed off the concerns.
"I am not scared. I am thinking of my mission," she had told reporters on the plane. "This is a movement for democracy because we are under threat from extremists and militants."
Tens of thousands of jubilant supporters had surrounded the former premier's procession amid massive security through the city after her return.
Bhutto was in tears as she came down the steps of a commercial flight from Dubai early Thursday. Her arrival follows an amnesty agreement struck with Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's embattled president.
"It's an extremely moving and emotional moment for me," Bhutto told the BBC after her arrival in Karachi. "I was looking forward to it for so long, and when I actually landed here I was overcome with my emotions. I could not believe that this day that I have counted the hours, the minutes, the months and the years to, had finally arrived."
Bhutto fled Pakistan in the face of the politically charged allegations made against her in 1999. Now she's negotiating a potential power-sharing agreement with Musharraf, whose authority has been eroded by a recent wave of popular resistance.
Outside Karachi airport, senior police officer Raza Hussain Shah said 20,000 officers were deployed at the airport and along the route into the city. Officials said police bomb squads and thousands of paramilitary troops and party volunteers were also charged with maintaining security.
But the precautions failed to dampen the spirit of huge crowds forming in Karachi.
Hundreds of buses and other vehicles festooned with billboards welcoming her back were parked bumper-to-bumper along the boulevard from the airport to the city center. A huge red, green and black flag of her Pakistan People's Party adorned one apartment block overlooking the route.
Throngs of supporters walked toward the airport, while groups of men performed traditional dances, beat drums or shook maracas along the way. They included representatives of Pakistan's minority Christian and Hindu communities and Baluch tribesmen with flowing white turbans.
Azad Bhatti, a 35-year-old poultry farmer from the southern city of Hyderabad, said he had "blind faith" in Bhutto's leadership.
"When Benazir Bhutto is in power, there is no bomb blast because she provides jobs and there is no frustration among the people," he said. "Whatever she thinks is for the betterment of the people."
Bhutto, whose two elected governments between 1988 and 1996 were toppled amid allegations of corruption and mismanagement, hopes to lead her secular, liberal party to victory in parliamentary elections in January.
Many Pakistanis are skeptical that Bhutto can meet her promises.
"People are intelligent now; they don't buy this rubbish," said Kamran Saleen, a 38-year-old businessman who lives near Karachi airport. "They know politicians can't make much difference."
Bhutto's party hoped that 1 million people will turn out Thursday to welcome her and get her campaign rolling. Few observers expected such a massive gathering. Farooqi, Karachi's police chief, said at least 75,000 party supporters were in the city — a turnout few of her rivals could muster.
Musharraf has seen his popularity plunge since a failed attempt to oust the country's top judge in the spring. The alliance with Bhutto appears aimed at boosting his political base as he seeks to extend his rule.
He easily won a vote by lawmakers Oct. 6 to give him a new five-year presidential term.
The Supreme Court, however, has ruled that Musharraf's victory can only become official once it rules on challenges to the legality of his re-election.
At a hearing Thursday, presiding Justice Javed Iqbal said the court hoped to issue a ruling within 10 to 12 days.
The court is also examining the legality of the amnesty agreement with Bhutto.
From NPR reports and The Associated Press
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