Thursday, October 18, 2007

Bhutto Back In Pakistan

By Cernig

In sharp contrast to the reception accorded her nearest rival, Nawaz Sharif, who was bundled back on a plane while his supporters were arrested in droves last month, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan today to a massive welcome.
Tens of thousands of supporters greeted Bhutto amid massive security. She was in tears as she descended the steps of the commercial flight from Dubai that brought her back.

When an Associated Press reporter asked her how it felt to be home, Bhutto, wearing a white headscarf and clutching prayer beads in her right hand, said it felt ``good. Very good.''

Bhutto, who fled Pakistan in the face of corruption charges in 1999, has chosen to come home during a period of particular uncertainty in Pakistan, as the popularity of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has waned and violence by Islamic radicals has been on the rise.

Authorities have mounted a massive security operation to protect the 54-year-old from possible attack by militants. 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 hung from one apartment block overlooking the route.

Supporters including representatives of Pakistan's minority Christian and Hindu communities and Baluch tribesmen with flowing white turbans, walked toward the airport, while groups of men performed traditional dances, beat drums or shook maracas along the way.
It remains to be seen whether Bhutto will be able to make a crucial difference to Pakistani politics, or even undo Mushraff's military dictatorship in any large measure. Her deal with the current president, whereby she sidesteps longstanding corruption charges in return for backing him for another term, has tainted her democratic credentials in the eyes of many Pakistanis. The Supreme Court are considering the legality of her amnesty and Mushraff's bid for continued power. Still, in as much as she is the head of a liberal and secular party with broad support, her return will bolster that party. While Bhutto may not be able to do the trick of turning Pakistan back into a stable democracy, her return holds out the hope that a process has begun which may be completed by others within her Pakistan People's Party, in time.

Update As Charles points out in comments, except for the bombs, Bhutto's return was a success.
A suicide bombing in a crowd welcoming former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto killed at least 126 people Thursday night, shattering her celebratory procession through Pakistan's biggest city after eight years in exile.

Two explosions went off near a truck carrying Bhutto, but police and officials of her party said she was not injured and was hurried to her house. An Associated Press photo showed a dazed-looking Bhutto being helped away.

Officials at six hospitals in Karachi reported 126 dead and 248 wounded, making it one of the deadliest bomb attacks in Pakistan's history.

Bhutto flew home to lead her Pakistan People's Party in January parliamentary elections, drawing cheers from supporters massed in a sea of the party's red, green and black flags. The police chief said 150,000 were in the streets, while other onlookers estimated twice that.
Bhutto had refused to use a helicopter for the journey, as urged by Musharaff officials, and had also refused to use a bulletproof glass cabin built into the truck carrying her. She had earlier said she knew there were risks and she was prepared to take them.
Her procession had been creeping toward the center of Karachi for 10 hours, moving at a snail's pace while dancing and cheering supporters swarmed around the truck, when a small explosion erupted near the front of the vehicle.

That was quickly followed by a larger blast just a few feet from the truck, setting an escorting police van on fire and breaking windows in Bhutto's vehicle. Party members on top of the truck scrambled to the ground, one man jumping while others climbed down a ladder or over the side.

"Evidence available at the scene is suggesting it was a suicide bombing and ... exploded near police vehicles destroying the two police vans escorting Benazir Bhutto's truck," police officer Raja Umer Khitab said. He said several policemen died.
OK, I'm going to ask. Islamist extremists, or ISI?

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