Asif Ali Zardari flew late on Thursday to the United Arab Emirates, where his wife is in self-imposed exile to avoid corruption charges in Pakistan, and was greeted by his son Bilawal and members of his wife's Pakistan People's Party.

There were highly emotional scenes at the airport when Bilawal hugged his father, a party spokesman said. He then went to his Dubai residence where Bhutto and other family members were waiting for him.

"This will be the first New Year the family will celebrate together for eight years," party spokesman Aijaz Durrani said.

Freed on bail

Zardari, tipped as a possible opposition leader in Pakistan, had not seen his wife since he was locked up in 1996 on murder and corruption charges.

Bhutto has been living in Dubai
in self-exile with her children

He was freed on bail just over five weeks ago and the government returned his passport and lifted a travel ban against him on Tuesday.

Zardari travelled to Dubai with the couple's youngest daughter Asifa. Their son Bilawal and elder daughter Bakhtawar had gone on ahead to Karachi after spending a few days with their father in Karachi earlier this week.

He will spend some time with the family and will also undergo a complete medical check-up before they all fly to Saudi Arabia, Durrani said.

"I will return soon to carry out the struggle for restoration of democracy," Zardari said before boarding the plane in Karachi on Thursday.

Reconciliation ahead?

Bhutto governed Pakistan twice between 1988 to 1996 but has not been able to return to her homeland.

Ties may have warmed between
Musharraf and Bhutto's party

Analysts have said Zardari's release could herald an improvement in relations with President Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in 1999.

Pakistan Information Minister Shaikh Rasheed Ahmed said on Tuesday that the return of Zardari's passport would help political reconciliation.

Zardari himself termed his release a "step in the right direction".

"My release was the result of a long legal battle, but I still welcome the move because government did not block my release - although that too came after eight years," he said.