KARACHI (AFP) — Former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto tearfully ended eight years of self-imposed exile Thursday, leading a jubilant homecoming parade through a sea of hundreds of thousands of supporters.
Bhutto sobbed as she descended from her plane in Karachi, Pakistan's biggest city, defying death threats from Al-Qaeda to launch a spectacular comeback bid for the second time in her storied political career.
The 54-year-old flew in from Dubai vowing to lead her party in elections aimed at restoring Pakistan to civilian rule, and avoided all talk of a mooted power-sharing deal with embattled military president Pervez Musharraf.
"It's a historic and very emotional moment for me, I am overwhelmed," said Bhutto, the first woman ever to lead an Islamic nation.
"I have learned a lot over the last 20 years but we are still fighting a dictatorship, we want to isolate extremists and build a better Pakistan," she told AFP.
Bhutto fled Pakistan in 1999 to avoid corruption charges arising from her two previous terms in power, but they were quashed by key US ally Musharraf this month in a gesture of reconciliation.
Dressed in a traditional green tunic, white trousers and headscarf that matched the Pakistani flag, Bhutto wept as she paused on the last step from the aircraft before finally planting her foot on her home soil.
She kissed a Koran and raised her hands to the sky.
Bhutto later embarked on a procession atop a specially modified lorry, eschewing its bullet-proof screens and waving to supporters from her Pakistan People's Party as they chanted "Long live Bhutto."
After five hours her cavalcade had moved about two miles (1.6 kilometre) due to the weight of the crowd. Huge billboards with her picture lined the route from the airport to the mausoleum of Pakistan's founding father.
"Our great leader has come home. It's the first step to democracy," labourer Waqar Shah said as Bhutto's parade passed.
Pakistani police said more than 250,000 people had jammed the streets. Her loyalists put the teeming crowd, many of whom were dancing to a frenzy of pounding drums, at more than one million.
More than 20,000 police and troops, backed up by bomb squads with sniffer dogs, patrolled the road and snipers manned surrounding rooftops.
Bhutto earlier shrugged off police warnings she would be targeted for assassination by Al-Qaeda or Taliban militants, in revenge for her pledges to crack down on extremism in the nuclear-armed nation of 160 million people.
The two-time prime minister's brother was shot dead in Karachi in 1996 and her father was hanged in 1979 by military dictator Zia-ul-Haq.
The Oxford-educated Bhutto has pledged to contest general elections in January and win a third term in power, although she needs Musharraf's help to overturn a constitutional bar on premiers serving three times.
Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999, has meanwhile sought to win over his fellow liberal after his own support plunged in recent months.
He pledged to step down as head of the army by November 15 after winning re-election by parliament earlier in October and signed the amnesty deal to benefit Bhutto.
But Musharraf later backtracked, urging her to postpone her homecoming after the Supreme Court ruled it must validate both his election win and the amnesty.
Bhutto is accused of earning commission on contract during her rule and transferring about 12 million dollars (8.4 million euros) to bank accounts in Switzerland.
On Thursday a Swiss magistrate probing money laundering charges against her and her husband said he would hand his report to the prosecutor next week to decide whether to proceed with the case.
Bhutto's lawyer told AFP Pakistan would drop the charges if the amnesty granted by Musharraf was endorsed by the country's top court.
Musharraf has also become unpopular due to his status as a pivotal ally in the US-led "war on terror," in which he is seen by the West as a bulwark against extremism in Pakistan's tribal areas on the Afghan border.
The White House stayed mute on Bhutto's return, but welcomed discussions among Pakistan's political players as "not a bad thing," adding that it could help fight radicalism in the region.
Bhutto remains a vastly popular figure despite divisions over her dealings with Musharraf. When she first returned from exile in 1986, one million welcomed her back home before she became prime minister the first time.
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