Mon, Oct 15, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Hometown prepares for Bhutto's return

WAITING FOR BIBI Despite the possibility that the former Pakistani PM's arrival could be delayed, residents of Larkana are pulling out all the stops in preparation

AP , LARKANA, PAKISTAN

Under a scorching sun, Yaseen Ali religiously repaints the fading contours of a vast picture of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto hoisted on the approach road to her ancestral residence in southern Pakistan.

The 26-year old unemployed arts graduate is among many in the two-time prime minister's hometown of Larkana who are dreaming of a brighter future -- including a job -- once Bhutto returns from an eight-year exile, slated for this week.

"I drew this picture some years back but weather messed up the colors," Ali said. "Now I am redrawing it to pay homage to the lady and welcome her home."

This city of about 1 million people is a stronghold of Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party and hopes to benefit economically if she returns to power.

Bhutto, whose two governments between 1988 and 1996 were hounded by accusations of mismanagement and corruption, has the status of a heroine here. The streets are festooned with billboards, posters and stickers of her and her late father, another former prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

Benazir Bhutto is due to land in Karachi, about 430km southeast of Larkana, on Thursday. Thousands of supporters are expected to greet her.

While many Pakistanis remain skeptical about Bhutto, amid accusations she has sold her democratic principles by securing an amnesty in corruption cases against her from Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, people here are still crazy about her.

"We missed her so much, and for us, she will always be a prime minister," said Riaz Phulphotto, estate manager at Bhutto's ancestral home in Naudero, a few kilometers north of Larkana.

Set in about 1,620 hectares of rice and sugarcane fields and guava orchards, Bhutto's sprawling residence is testament to her family's vast landholdings and wealth in Sindh Province.

With its gardens, the house covers an area of about 1.8 hectares. Like much of the city, it was being decked out in ornamental lights to add to the carnival atmosphere when Bhutto travels here after touching down in Karachi, just after the Islamic holiday of Id ul-Fitr. Retainers were whitewashing the walls, and cleaning up and repairing the electricity.

Mohammad Hasan Bhutto, 70, a loyal servant, said he remem-bered the young Bibi -- as Bhutto is affectionately known here -- playing in the courtyard as a child. He said her return would bring joy back into his life.

"Ever since she left I have forgotten how to draw joy from anything. Even Id brought no happiness in our lives," he said. "This year, I will celebrate Id for the first time in 10 years."

Police and scores of Bhutto's own people guard the house round-the-clock and bar outsiders from going inside, amid fears she could be targeted by Islamic militants.

Bhutto, who was the Muslim world's first female prime minister, is respected in the West for her liberal views and tough rhetoric on fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban. She is seen as an anti-terror ally for Musharraf if her party fares well in elections due by January.

In a sign of security fears, a special shipping container fortified with bulletproof glass is being readied to convey Bhutto through the streets of Karachi.

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