Bhutto to return to Pakistan in October

Former Pakistan premier Benazir Bhutto will return from self-imposed exile on October 18, her party said on Friday, adding to the political turmoil facing President Pervez Musharraf ahead of elections.

Supporters set off firecrackers as the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) announced that Bhutto, the first female leader of an Islamic nation, will arrive next month in the southern port city of Karachi.

The government said it will not obstruct Bhutto’s return, but added that she must still face the corruption charges that originally drove her to leave the country in 1999, the year Musharraf took power in a coup.

Bhutto has been in talks with the beleaguered Musharraf for a power-sharing deal, but the announcement of her planned return steps up the pressure on him to accede to her demands, which include that he step down as army chief.

The announcement comes days after Musharraf warded off a potential challenge to his military rule by deporting another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to Saudi Arabia shortly after his homecoming from seven years in exile.

“I am giving this good news to the people that she is arriving on October 18 and will land in Karachi,” PPP vice-chairperson Makhdoom Amin Fahim told a news conference in Islamabad.

Activists chanted “Long live Bhutto” and “Benazir Prime Minister” at the venue, which was decked out with a huge poster of Bhutto wearing a veil in front of the party’s red, green and black flag.

“Benazir Bhutto needs nobody’s green light to return to Pakistan,” senior party member Sherry Rehman added.

Bhutto, who served two terms between 1988 and 1990 and again from 1993 to 1996, has led her party from exile in London and Dubai since she fled to avoid the graft allegations against her.

“There is no bar on her return; she could have come back any time,” Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azeem said. “So long as the corruption charges are there on the books and not dropped, the law will take its own course.”

Her demands for an amnesty covering the charges are one of the sticking points for the proposed pact with Musharraf.

Disagreements have also arisen over Bhutto’s demands for Musharraf to hang up his uniform before he seeks re-election by Parliament within the coming month, and that he give up key powers.

Bhutto also wants the government to lift a ban on prime ministers serving a third term, a move that would potentially allow her to regain power in general elections that are due in early 2008.

Progress in the talks has slowed to a crawl despite the fact that the United States, which counts Musharraf as a key ally in the “war on terror”, has been pushing him to make a deal with the liberal, Oxford-educated Bhutto.

Bhutto said in an interview last week that she wanted to meet Musharraf face-to-face to push forward the process.

Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid, a close confidant of the Pakistani leader, said “talks between President Musharraf and the PPP are on track” but did not elaborate.

Musharraf has been embroiled in crisis since a botched attempt to sack the country’s chief justice in March. He also faces a rising tide of militant violence, with a suicide bombing killing 20 elite commandos on Thursday.

But he took a tough stance on Monday when faced with what could have been one of the most serious threats to his grip on power—the return of the conservative Sharif, the man he ousted in October 1999.

Sharif had vowed to lead a campaign against the president, but was arrested and charged with corruption just four hours after he flew in from London, before being bundled on to a flight to the Saudi city of Jeddah.—Sapa-AFP


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