Bhutto readies for mass democracy protest

LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - Chanting supporters welcomed Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto to the city of Lahore on Sunday, ahead of a mass protest she plans against President Pervez Musharraf’s emergency rule.

Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto offers prayer at the grave of Islamic saint Data Ganj Bakhsh, at his shrine in Lahore November 11, 2007. Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, under pressure from rivals and Western allies to put Pakistan back on a path to democracy, said on Sunday a general election would be held by early next year. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza

Waving the black, red and green flags of her Pakistan People’s Party, hundreds of frenzied activists shouted “Benazir Prime Minister!” and “Long live Bhutto”, thrusting their arms in the air and making V for victory signs.

Bhutto intends to lead a procession of vehicles to Islamabad on Tuesday to demand Musharraf quits as army chief, ends the emergency rule he imposed a week ago, restores the constitution and frees thousands of detained lawyers and opponents.

Police have vowed to block the convoy, just as they stifled a planned protest rally in the city of Rawalpindi on Friday -- when Bhutto was held under house arrest for most of the day.

“I am here for democracy,” Bhutto said on arrival at Lahore airport, where several hundred party activists and supporters managed to negotiate their way past barricades manned by police in riot vests wielding batons and shields.

Punjab province’s elite police unit, with “No Fear” printed on their tracksuits, stood guard.

“Even if the Punjab government tries to create hurdles, we will go for our long march on November 13,”, she added, before getting into her white, bullet-proof Land Cruiser as supporters ran behind her waving banners and party flags.

As she drove past, youths playing cricket on scrubland near the airport terminal rushed to the roadside and cheered, waving their bats in the air.


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Bhutto, who the United States had hoped would end up sharing power with Musharraf after elections, described nuclear-armed Pakistan as a “pressure cooker” about to explode on Saturday.

In the face of pressure from U.S. President George W. Bush, Musharraf on Sunday said elections would be held by January 9, in line with a schedule that Bhutto had been insisting on.

However, Musharraf -- who is waiting for a Supreme Court ruling to endorse his October election win while still serving as army chief -- has not yet given a date for lifting emergency rule, or removing his army uniform.

Bhutto welcomed the election date announcement, but said it was not enough.

“It is a positive step to defuse the situation to some extent, but it will not help to resolve all problems,” she later told a news conference at the Lahore residence of one of her party leaders.

“We are not totally satisfied ... The long march will continue,” she added, referring to the motorcade protest.

But she has not ruled out further talks with Musharraf.

“We haven’t shut the doors to negotiation,” she said. “To move forward, Musharraf should retire from his army post, restore the judiciary, release the political activists and restore the constitution.”

Many Pakistanis expect Musharraf to go back on his promise to give up his uniform, as he did in 2004.

Bhutto supporters are praying her return to Pakistan after eight years of self-imposed exile to avoid corruption charges will mark a new beginning in troubled Pakistan.

“She is a symbol of democracy,” said Mohammad Riaz Badar, a 74-year-old former song writer who was wearing a party flag tied around his neck.

“The dictatorship should end and she should be allowed to come to power. She has proved she is a brave woman. She is a daughter of a martyr,” he added, referring to Bhutto’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s first popularly elected prime minister who was executed by the military in 1979.

Editing by Robert Birsel