KARACHI, PAKISTAN (CBS/AP)
Benazir Bhutto made a dramatic return to Pakistan on Thursday, ending eight years of exile to launch an ambitious political comeback, as tens of supporters gathered to greet her amid massive security.
Bhutto 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.
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, a two-time prime minister who fled Pakistan in the face of corruption charges in 1999, has returned at a moment of uncertainty in this nuclear-armed nation, which is struggling to counter spreading Islamic militancy.
With parliamentary elections due in January, she hopes to campaign for a record third premiership.
Authorities have deployed thousands of security forces to protect the 54-year-old from possible attack by Islamic radicals. But the precautions failed to deter her Pakistan People's Party from mounting a spirited street party.
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 party flag hung from one apartment block.
Supporters, including members 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.
Benazir BhuttoAzad 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 President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup. Musharraf 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 Qaeda and the Taliban.
"You have a situation where two people, who are well known to have considerable distrust for one another, are entering into some kind of arrangement. Will it last? It seems to me that it's doubtful. Maybe it will, and I hope it will, but I have misgivings about that," Howard Schaffer, former Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia and current Director of Studies at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, told CBS News.
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.
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 seemed smaller than the 1 million Bhutto claimed had turned out to welcome her. Karachi police chief Azhar Farooqi said at least 75,000 Bhutto supporters were in the city, and government spokesman Muhammad Ali Durrani described the event as a flop.
"It is the PPP workers' response and not the public response and even the workers' response is much less than what she was expecting," Durrani said.
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 an address.
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 recently, and the rapprochement with Bhutto appears aimed at boosting his political base. He was easily re-elected as president by lawmakers Oct. 6. However, the Supreme Court is examining the legality of the victory.
"We are seeing a new era in Pakistan politics. You have a good chance of a renewed civilian participation. Is it going to lead to a more democratic arrangement in Pakistan? We hope so," said Schaffer.
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