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Former premier Benazir Bhutto returns to Pakistan after 8-year exile

KARACHI, Pakistan — Benazir Bhutto made a dramatic return to Pakistan on Thursday, ending eight years of exile to launch an ambitious political comeback, as tens of thousands of supporters gathered to greet her amid massive security.

Bhutto, who is expected to seek the premiership for an unprecedented third time and partner in ruling Pakistan with U.S.-backed President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, was in tears as she descended the steps of a commercial flight that brought her from Dubai to Karachi, where jubilant crowds of flag-waving, drum-thumping supporters waited to give her a rousing welcome.

"I counted the hours, I counted the minutes and the seconds, just to see this land, to see the grass, to see the sky. I feel so emotionally overwhelmed," said Bhutto, who wore a white headscarf and clutched prayer beads in her right hand.

"And I hope that I can live up to the great expectations which people here have," she said.

Bhutto, 54, fled Pakistan in the face of corruption charges in 1999. It would take a constitutional amendment for her to be prime minister again; Pakistani law bars leaders from seeking a third term.

Authorities have mounted a massive security operation to protect her 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.

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 paved her route back in negotiations with Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup. Musharraf, whose popularity has waned as violence by Islamic radicals has risen, is promising to give up his command of Pakistan's powerful army if he secures a new term as president.

The talks have yielded an amnesty covering the corruption cases that made Bhutto leave Pakistan in the first place, and could see the archrivals eventually team up to fight al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Before boarding her flight from Dubai, Bhutto told reporters that her homecoming felt like a miracle.

"I hope that, as this miracle is happening, that a miracle will happen for the impoverished and poverty-stricken people of Pakistan who are desperate for change, who want safety, who want security, who want opportunity, who want empowerment and employment," she said.

Outside Karachi airport, police baton-charged one group of supporters who approached the VIP terminal, where Bhutto was expected to arrive after landing. But with the crowds swelling, they later relaxed the cordon and let thousands of flag-waving PPP partisans to gather round the building.

Raza Hussain Shah, a senior police officer at the airport, said 20,000 officers were deployed there 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.

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 Pakistani 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."

The crowd was smaller than the 1 million Bhutto's party hoped would turn out to welcome her. Karachi police chief Azhar Farooqi said at least 75,000 Bhutto supporters were in the city. Government spokesman Muhammad Ali Durrani described the event as a flop.

Bhutto was to travel on a truck equipped with a bulletproof glass cubicle to the tomb of Pakistan's founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, to make a speech.

Authorities had urged her to cover the 10 miles by helicopter to reduce the risk of attack. But Bhutto, 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 told reporters on the plane. "This is a movement for democracy because we are under threat from extremists and militants."

Musharraf has seen his popularity plunge since a failed attempt to oust the country's top judge in the spring. The rapprochement with Bhutto appears aimed at boosting his political base as he vies 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.

Associated Press writers Matthew Pennington, Ashraf Khan and Afzal Nadeem in Karachi, Sadaqat Jan and Zarar Khan in Islamabad and Barbara Surk in Dubai contributed to this report.