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Bhutto to end exile and return to Pakistan

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto will return home on October 18 after more than eight years in exile, a senior aide said on Friday, but the government said she had to face corruption charges.

Bhutto faces a slew of such charges and possibly arrest. But she has been in talks with President Pervez Musharraf about the chance of sharing power after a general election due around the end of the year.

“Benazir Bhutto will be landing in Karachi on October 18,” Makhdoom Amin Faheem, vice chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party, led by Bhutto, told a news conference.

Asked about the possibility of her arrest, Faheem said: “We are ready to face any situation. We can handle any eventuality.”

The developments will be closely watched in Washington and other Western capitals. Pakistan under Musharraf has been an important ally in U.S.-led anti-terrorism efforts.

Information Minister Mohammad Ali Durrani said Bhutto could return home, but told Reuters: “The law will take its course. She has to face corruption cases pending against her in the courts.”

Earlier this week, authorities bundled off another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to Saudi Arabia hours after he landed at Islamabad airport following a seven-year exile.

But Sharif is the man Musharraf ousted eight years ago, whereas Bhutto is a potential ally.

Sharif’s brother Shahbaz expressed dismay at the idea of a power-sharing deal. “The struggle for democracy and the rule of law will be deeply hampered by this arrangement between Musharraf and Benazir,” he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp from London.

Former Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto speaks at a news conference in London September 1, 2007. Bhutto is due to announce a date for her return to Pakistan on Friday, without any breakthrough in sight in talks on a power-sharing deal with President Pervez Musharraf. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

Faheem said on-off talks with Musharraf were again in limbo, but didn’t rule out some understanding being reached.

“In democracy, the door for talks is never shut,” he said.

Musharraf and Bhutto have been trying for months to secure a pact that would help him get a second five-year presidential term and allow her to return without fear of prosecution.

A presidential election by the national and provincial assemblies is due sometime before October 15.

Musharraf has seen his authority eroded and popularity dwindle since an unsuccessful attempt to fire the country’s chief justice in March.

Analysts say he needs support from a mainstream party to retain the presidency -- the trouble is he has marginalized both the PPP and Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League faction.

PERSONALITY COUNTS

But while Musharraf and Bhutto share progressive, liberal leanings, and the United States appears to be encouraging moderate forces to coalesce, there are serious doubts about how long the two strong personalities could work together.

Bhutto’s first condition is that Musharraf should quit the army and become a civilian president, but she also wants the law amended so she can become prime minister for a third time.

And having been sacked twice before in the 1990s, she wants some check on presidential powers to fire a prime minister.

To add to the difficulties, Musharraf’s current political friends fear they could be sidelined by any deal with Bhutto.

The ruling coalition is mainly made up of the rump of Sharif’s party and defectors from Bhutto’s party.

Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, Railways Minister and a close ally of Musharraf, said most issues with Bhutto, including Musharraf’s army role, had been settled and the sticking point was the ban on a person becoming prime minister for a third time.

“The president has made up his mind on (the) uniform and he will speak out his mind at an appropriate time,” he said.

Meanwhile, Musharraf faces a raft of legal challenges in the Supreme Court, regarded as hostile since his ill-fated attempt to sack the chief justice.

A nine-member bench of the Supreme Court is due next week to begin hearing a petition against Musharraf’s bid to stand for a second term, and his right to be president and army chief at the same time.

If the case goes against him, and he still has no deal with Bhutto, Musharraf could put off his reelection for at least three months by dissolving the National Assembly and seeking a mandate from the next parliament.

In a worst case scenario, he could impose emergency rule extending the tenure of the parliament and postpone elections.

Additional reporting by Augustine Anthony and David Ljunggren

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