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Police ready bomb squads ahead of Bhutto return to chaotic Karachi

KARACHI, Pakistan — Thousands of Benazir Bhutto supporters surged toward Karachi on Wednesday, the eve of the former premier's return from exile, as she declared any Islamic militant assassin targeting her would "burn in hell."

Meanwhile, Pakistan's top court heard challenges to the legality of Gen. Pervez Musharraf's re-election as president.

Police were readying bomb disposal squads and sealing roads ahead of Bhutto's planned return to this chaotic city of 15 million people on Thursday, where she hopes 1 million people will greet the end of her eight-year exile.

Negotiations with Musharraf that could see the archrivals team up in a U.S.-friendly alliance to fight al-Qaida and the Taliban have already produced an amnesty covering the corruption cases that made her leave Pakistan in 1999. Bhutto hopes to secure a third term as prime minister after January elections.

"My return heralds for the people of Pakistan the turn of the wheel from dictatorship to democracy," Bhutto said at a news conference in Dubai, flanked by her husband and two daughters.

Bhutto recently courted controversy in Pakistan by saying that she would cooperate with the American military in targeting Osama bin Laden, and authorities here warned that militants could launch suicide attacks and roadside bombings against her.

Asked about such threats, Bhutto said Islam forbids suicide bombings and attacks on her. "Muslims know if they attack a woman they will burn in hell," she said.

The government of Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital, appealed to Bhutto to abandon plans for a snail-paced 10-mile grand procession into Karachi, saying it would leave her vulnerable.

It said the main threat was from Taliban and al-Qaida.

With Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party already mobilizing rallies and convoys of supporters expected to arrive from its strongholds across Sindh by late Wednesday, many observers believe more than 100,000 will turn out. The PPP is predicting there will be more than 1 million.

Vast billboards proclaiming the two-time prime minister as the country's savior festooned the route from the airport. Thousands of her supporters had already arrived from the city of Multan in neighboring Punjab province and from Pakistan's part of divided Kashmir, said Waqar Mehdi, a party spokesman.

A shipping container fortified with bulletproof glass is being readied to convey Bhutto through Karachi, and some 3,500 police and paramilitary troops and 5,000 party volunteers will guard the streets, officials say.

"We have taken precautions against suicide bombers and the police are ensuring there are no implanted explosives on the route," said PPP security adviser, retired general Ahsan Ullah.

Overnight, police used shipping containers to block three access roads on the highway leading from the airport that Bhutto will travel, and seven bomb disposal squads would start sweeping the route by late Wednesday, said Mazhar Shahab, a senior city police official.

The provincial education department announced all schools in Karachi would be closed Thursday.

However, fears of a repeat of political clashes that left more than 40 dead in the city in May eased when Karachi's most powerful party — the pro-Musharraf Mutahida Qaumi Movement — said it would not obstruct Bhutto when she arrives on a commercial flight from Dubai on Thursday afternoon.

"We hope her arrival will decrease the present political polarization in the country," MQM provincial lawmaker Faisal Sabzwai said.

Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, has seen his popularity plunge since a failed attempt to oust Pakistan's top judge in the spring. The deal with Bhutto appears aimed at boosting his political base as he vies to extend his rule.

He easily won a new five-year term in an Oct. 6 vote by lawmakers that was boycotted by opposition parties.

Musharraf's opponents have petitioned the Supreme Court, claiming that he was ineligible to contest the vote because he has retained his post as army chief. Government officials insist the election was held legally.

The Supreme Court has emerged as the main threat to Musharraf's hold on power since his botched attempt to fire the independent-minded Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.

At a hearing Wednesday, opposition lawyers requested that all of the court's 17 justices decide whether Musharraf should be disqualified. But Chaudhry declined to get involved and instructed an 11-member panel hearing the case to continue, court spokesman Arshad Muneer said.

If he wins, Musharraf has promised to step down as army chief and restore civilian rule. The government says a caretaker government will hold the elections in January.


Associated Press writer Afzal Nadeem in Karachi and Sadaqat Jan and Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.