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Bhutto sets Oct. 18 return to Pakistan
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto is coming home next month to press for the restoration of democracy, regardless of the outcome of her talks on sharing power with Pakistan's U.S.-allied military president, her party said Friday.
The government, meanwhile, said Bhutto would not suffer the fate of political rival Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister who was swiftly expelled when he returned from exile Monday, but officials said she would have to face pending corruption charges.
Bhutto, who left Pakistan eight years ago amid the corruption allegations, has been negotiating with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf on the possibility of combining their political forces to share power after elections.
Musharraf, also head of Pakistan's military, is seeking allies in his effort to win election by parliament to a new presidential term. He has seen his popularity slide this year after he tried to remove the Supreme Court's popular chief judge and Islamic militants stepped up attacks.
Both Bhutto and Musharraf are urging moderates to work together to defeat Taliban and al-Qaida extremists based along the frontier with Afghanistan. But they have failed to produce an accord, amid signs Musharraf is reluctant to give up the sweeping powers he seized in a 1999 coup.
Bhutto, 56, said Pakistan needs to return to civilian rule as it prepares for parliamentary elections that must be held by January.
"This will strengthen our efforts for democracy," Bhutto, who lives in exile in Dubai and London, said later on Pakistan's Geo television. "Democracy should be restored completely and the army removed from the scene."
The U.S. government, which has viewed Musharraf as key regional ally since he dropped Pakistan's support for the Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, took no position Bhutto's return.
"We're not in the business of picking candidates; we're not in the business of favoring parties," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "We have an interest, obviously, in seeing Pakistani democracy move forward and progress. Part of that is having free, fair and open, transparent elections."
The Pakistan People's Party said Bhutto would fly into Karachi, Pakistan's biggest city and the capital of her home province of Sindh, on Oct. 18.
"The people of Pakistan will get real democracy," party Vice President Makhdoom Amin Fahim said, seated in front of a huge portrait of Bhutto.
After he announced Bhutto's plans, supporters threw flower petals and firecrackers and chanted "Long live Benazir! Prime Minister Benazir!"
Bhutto was only 35 when she became prime minister in 1988, the first female leader of a modern Muslim nation. She was elected to a second term in 1993.
Both her governments were dismissed amid corruption allegations, chronic economic problems and alleged differences with Pakistan's powerful military.
But her secular, liberal-leaning party is well organized, and Bhutto is one of Pakistan's best known politicians, the daughter of a prime minister who was deposed and sent to the gallows under a previous military leader.
The date she chose for her return is three days after the deadline for legislators to elect a president for a five-year term. That will let her see the outcome of the negotiations with the government and also of legal challenges to Musharraf's eligibility for another term.
"Whether she is going to be a partner or run for elections along with the other parties, she has to come to Pakistan," said Talat Masood, a former army general who is now a political analyst. "She has to come if her party is to do well."
Party leaders said the door for negotiations with Musharraf would remain open until Oct. 18. Bhutto acknowledged that the talks had stalled, but added: "If democracy can be restored this way, I will definitely go for that."
Party officials urged people to welcome Bhutto at Karachi airport and said she would embark on a tour of the country.
"We have decided that she is coming back, talks or no talks," said Babar Awan, another party leader. "This is the moment when the Pakistani nation has to redefine itself ... now is the time for struggle."
Earlier Friday, a government spokesman said Bhutto would be treated differently than Sharif, a conservative whose government was toppled in 1999 by Musharraf. His expulsion sidelined a key rival while underlining the general's willingness to take authoritarian steps to extend his rule.
"Nawaz Sharif's case was different. He went back to Saudi Arabia because of an undertaking he had with the Saudi government" to stay away from Pakistan for 10 years, government spokesman Tariq Azim said. "She [Bhutto] was always allowed to come back."
Asked about corruption charges against Bhutto, he said: "It's for the law to take its own course. Everybody has to face cases against them and the same applies to her."
Azim said the schedule for the presidential vote by lawmakers would be announced in the next three to four days.
He said Musharraf's talks with Bhutto were snagged over her desire for the corruption cases to be dropped and for a constitutional amendment to let her seek a third term as prime minister. He said there also were differences over the president's re-election bid, a possible allusion to Bhutto wanting Musharraf to give up his military post.
Bhutto, who has led her party while in exile, would risk a backlash among the public and even her own party if she struck a deal with the military leader that doesn't see him step down as army chief and hold free and fair elections.
"We welcome her coming back, but let me say that it will be an insult to democracy if she agrees to share power with a man who ousted the elected government of Nawaz Sharif and has caused irreparable damage to democratic institutions," said Sadiq ul-Farooq, a leader of Sharif's party.