Bhutto described her supporters as the "real" Pakistan [AFP]

Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan, says she hopes she can "live up to the expectations" of her supporters after ending eight years of self-exile.

Special report

An estimated 250,000 people packed the streets of Karachi, the country's biggest city and a stronghold of Bhutto's Pakistan's Peoples Party (PPP) - to celebrate her return.
 

"I am thankful to God, I am very happy that I'm back in my country and I was dreaming of this day," a tearful Bhutto said as she arrived from Dubai on Thursday.

Bhutto has returned to Pakistan to lead the PPP in forthcoming national elections that are aimed at returning the country to civilian rule.

 

She said she was "proud of the people of Pakistan" and highlighted the flag-waving crowd as the face of the "real Pakistan".

"These people are the real Pakistan, the decent and hardworking middle and working classes who want to be in power so they can build a moderate, modern nation where everyone has equality," she said.

'Free and fair'

Bhutto stood on a truck designed to withstand a bomb attack as it edged through the throng outside the airport, ignoring police advice to keep behind its bullet proof glass.

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"Now that the people have given their verdict, it is necessary that the elections should be free and fair," she said before setting off at the head of a procession through Karachi that was likely to last for hours.


More than 20,000 police and troops, backed up by bomb squads, patrolled the route of Bhutto's parade from the airport to the mausoleum of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founding father.

"I love Benazir and we are here to safeguard her life. I can sacrifice my life for her," said Abdul Majid Mirani, a guard in a 5,000-strong private army tasked with protecting her.

While Karachi came to a standstill for Bhutto's homecoming, Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president, spent the morning at his army offices in Rawalpindi, with no official engagements scheduled, an aide said.

Bhutto left Pakistan in 1999 to avoid corruption charges during her second term as prime minister.

But there is strong speculation Musharraf will end up sharing power with Bhutto after national elections due in early January.
 
Tariq Azim Khan, Pakistan's minister for information, told Al Jazeera the crowds that had gathered to welcome Bhutto "shows that in Pakistan democracy is well and kicking".
 
He said there was "no power-sharing deal" between Bhutto and Musharraf.
 
Asked if he thought Bhutto could win a general election, he said: "Nothing is a foregone conclusion.
 
"How many people turned out to see a lady who has been missing for eight years and how many people vote for you at the ballot box are two different things altogether."

The US is believed to have encouraged their alliance in order to keep Pakistan, its ally, committed to fighting al-Qaeda and supportive of Nato's work in Afghanistan.

'Not unprecedented'

An estimated quarter of a million
people greeted Bhutto [AFP]
Kamal Hyder, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Islamabad, says it was business as usual in Pakistan's capital on Thursday and Bhutto's return may further highlight ideological divisions within Pakistani society.
"Many people are already saying there is a dangerous ideological divide between the secular people's party which is perceived as acceptable to the west and more religious parties that are not.", he said.

For years, Bhutto has said she will return to Pakistan to put an end to the military's position in power.
 
On her arrival in Karachi, Bhutto said: "I have learned a lot over the last 20 years but we are still fighting a dictatorship, we want to isolate extremists and build a better Pakistan."
 
Karachi was transformed by large billboards of Bhutto and her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was executed in 1979 by the military government that ran the country.

The scenes were reminiscent of those 21 years ago when Bhutto returned from exile in the UK and later went on to become prime minister.

"Obviously she has a mass following and that following makes her a major factor in Pakistani politics, but the welcome that is being seen here is not unprecedented - if it wasn't like this, it would be a surprise." Ikram Sehgal, a political analyst, told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies