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Pakistan's Musharraf due to return home

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Pakistan's former military ruler Pervez Musharraf is expected to fly home on Sunday after more than four years in exile, defying a Taliban death threat to contest historic general elections.

The 69-year-old ex-dictator says he is prepared to risk any danger to stand for election on May 11, billed to mark the first democratic transition of power in the history of a nuclear-armed country dominated by periods of military rule.

He seized power in a bloodless coup as army chief of staff in 1999 and left the country after stepping down in August 2008, when Asif Ali Zardari was elected president after the murder of his wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

His office said he would arrive in Karachi on a commercial flight at 1:00 pm (0800 GMT) and address a rally at the heavily secured airport, instead of at the tomb of Pakistan's founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah as originally intended.

His All Pakistan Muslim League (APML) switched venue after the Pakistani Taliban threatened to dispatch a squad of suicide bombers to assassinate Musharraf and police withdrew permission for the rally over security fears.

Karachi, a city of 18 million, is already in the throes of record political and ethnic violence. On March 3, a huge car bomb killed 50 people in a mainly Shiite Muslim area of the city, the worst single attack in the city for years.

Dressed in an off-white shalwa kameez, the traditional dress in Pakistan, Musharraf told reporters at his office, before heading to Dubai airport, that he was "not feeling nervous" but admitted to some concerns.

"I am feeling concerned about the unknown... there are a lot of unknown factors of terrorism and extremism, unknown factors of legal issue, unknown factors of how much I will be able to perform (in the elections)," he said.

Musharraf Saturday told Der Spiegel he wanted to free his homeland from terrorism when he returned.

"I want to put Pakistan on the road to prosperity and free it from terrorism," he said in the interview with the German magazine.

As ruler of Pakistan, he escaped three Al-Qaeda assassination attempts. He became a prominent target for Islamist extremists after becoming a key US ally in the "war on terror" after the 9/11 attacks.

In July 2007, he ordered troops to storm a radical mosque in Islamabad. The operation left more than 100 people dead and opened the floodgates to Islamist attacks in Pakistan, which have killed thousands since then.

When Bhutto returned to Karachi from eight years in exile on October 18, 2007, bomb attacks killed at least 139 people in what remains the deadliest single terror attack on Pakistani soil.

She was later assassinated in a gun and suicide attack at an election rally in Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007. Her son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who is chairman of the Pakistan People's Party, has accused Musharraf of her murder.

Musharraf is wanted by the courts over Bhutto's death, the 2006 death of Akbar Bugti, a Baluch rebel leader in the southwest, and for the 2007 sacking and illegal arrest of judges.

Human Rights Watch called on the Pakistani government to hold Musharraf accountable for widespread and serious human rights abuses under his rule.

"Only by ensuring that Musharraf faces the well-documented outstanding charges against him can Pakistan put an end to the military's impunity for abuses," said Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director at HRW.

Under Musharraf's watch, the military and intelligence agencies committed widespread rights violations, including the enforced disappearances of thousands of political opponents and tortured hundreds of terrorism suspects, HRW said.

On Friday a court in Karachi granted him protective bail for at least 10 days on charges of conspiracy to murder and illegally arresting judge.

But analysts say there is a real danger to his life, which outweighs his political future in a country where his power base his evaporated.

"I don't know why he is taking the risk when he has not a bright future in Pakistan," said retired lieutenant general Talat Masood.

Last year he delayed a planned homecoming after being threatened with arrest. Commentators believe he can only secure, at most, a couple of seats at the polls.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130324/pakistans-musharraf-due-return-home