DUBAI, Mar 24 – Pakistan’s former military ruler Pervez Musharraf was flying 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.
Dressed in an off-white shalwa kameez, the traditional dress in Pakistan, Musharraf told reporters 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.
His official Facebook and Twitter accounts provided live commentary, posting messages and photographs of him boarding the aircraft and sitting in his seat.
His scheduled Emirates flight to Karachi later took off around 10:15 local time (0615 GMT) with supporters on board shouting “long life to Musharraf”, annoying some of the regular passengers, said an AFP reporter.
Musharraf is expected to land at the heavily secured airport at around 1pm where he will address a rally, forced to scrap original plans to gather at the tomb of Pakistan’s founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah because of security fears.
The Pakistani Taliban threatened to dispatch a squad of suicide bombers to assassinate Musharraf and police withdrew permission for the rally.
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.
Just hours before Musharraf’s planned homecoming, a suicide bomber killed 17 Pakistani soldiers by ramming a water tanker packed with explosives into a check post in the notorious tribal district of North Waziristan.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but North Waziristan is a known stronghold of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked operatives. Pakistani troops have been fighting homegrown insurgents in the tribal belt for years.
Musharraf told Der Spiegel he wanted to put Pakistan “on the road to prosperity and free it from terrorism” when he returned.
As ruler, 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.
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 he is likely to win no more than a couple of seats for his All Pakistan Muslim League (APML) party.