KARACHI, Pakistan – Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf ended more than four years in self-exile Sunday with a flight to his homeland, seeking a possible political comeback in defiance of judicial probes and death threats from Taliban militants.
Security forces whisked Musharraf away in a convoy of about a dozen vehicles shortly after he touched down in the southern port city of Karachi and did not allow him to greet hundreds of supporters waiting at the airport, ready to shower him with rose petals. The move angered other supporters traveling with the former president.
It’s unclear whether the security forces had detained Musharraf, who faces legal charges, or acted out of concern for his safety. Many paramilitary Rangers and police had been stationed at the airport with their rifles at the ready awaiting his arrival.
The journey from exile in Dubai is intended as the first step in his goal of rebuilding his image after years on the political margins. Since the former general was forced from power, Pakistan’s civilian leadership has struggled with a sinking economy, resilient Islamic extremist factions and tensions with Washington over drone strikes and the secret raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Musharraf represents a polarizing force that could further complicate Pakistan’s attempt to hold parliamentary elections in May and stage its first transition from one civilian government to another.
He is viewed as an enemy by many Islamic militants and others for his decision to side with America in the response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. On Saturday, the Pakistani Taliban vowed to mobilize death squads to send Musharraf “to hell” if he returns.
Also Saturday, militants launched a suicide car bomb attack against a military check post in the country’s northwest tribal region, killing 17 soldiers, the army said.
Musharraf’s supporters, including elements of the military and members of Pakistan’s influential expatriate communities, consider him a strong leader whose voice – even just in parliament – could help stabilize the country.
Musharraf also faces legal charges, including some originating from the probe of the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who also spent time in self-imposed exile in Dubai before returning.
The flight from Dubai came after several failed promises to return in recent years. Musharraf announced in early March that he would lead his party, the All Pakistan Muslim League, in May elections.
Musharraf met briefly with reporters in Dubai before heading to the airport wearing a white shalwar kameez – the traditional loose-fitting outfit in Pakistan – and sandals from the country’s Peshawar region near the Afghan border. He mingled with supporters aboard the plane on the way to Karachi, as some of them chanted slogans for his party.
Musharraf took power in a 1999 coup and was forced to step down in 2008 amid growing discontent over his rule. He has since lived in Dubai and London.
His decision to return was given a boost last week when a Pakistan court granted him pre-emptive bail – essentially preventing his immediate arrest – in three cases in which he’s implicated, including Bhutto’s death. He now has 10 days to appear in court. He has dismissed the various charges as baseless.
His return comes as Pakistan seeks for the first time to hand power from one elected government to another.
On Sunday, the country’s election commission appointed a former high court chief justice nominated by the country’s outgoing ruling party to serve as caretaker prime minister in the run-up to the election. The commission chose Mir Hazar Khan Khoso out of four nominees, two submitted by the recently ruling Pakistan People’s Party and two by the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N.
Khoso served as the chief justice to the high court in southwest Baluchistan province and also briefly served as the acting governor of the province.
The election comes as the country is struggling with rolling blackouts, rising inflation and widespread security problems.
On Saturday, the Pakistan Taliban released a video threatening to unleash suicide bombers and snipers against Musharraf if he comes back. One of the two people speaking in the video was Adnan Rashid, a former Pakistani air force officer convicted in an attack against Musharraf. The Taliban broke Rashid out of prison last year, along with nearly 400 other detainees.
“The mujahedeen of Islam have prepared a death squad to send Pervez Musharraf to hell,” said Rashid, who spoke in the video in front of a group of about 20 militants holding rifles. “We warn you to surrender yourself to us. Otherwise we will hit you from where you will never reckon.”
Musharraf had been expected to address supporters at a gathering Sunday in Karachi near the mausoleum of Pakistan’s founding father Mohammed Ali Jinnah. But police decided to cancel his permit because of a “very serious threat,” said Tahir Naveed, the deputy inspector general of Karachi police. He said Musharraf would be provided with an armored vehicle to protect him due to the threats. Banners and billboards welcoming Musharraf back to Pakistan lined the street from the airport where he is expected to land.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Musharraf came under intense pressure from the U.S. to back the Americans in the coming war in Afghanistan and cut off ties with the Taliban, which he did. For that, militants as well as many other Pakistanis saw him as carrying out the American agenda in Pakistan.
He’s also vilified by militants for ordering the 2007 raid against a mosque in downtown Islamabad that had become a sanctuary for militants opposed to Pakistan’s support of the war in Afghanistan. At least 102 people were killed in the weeklong operation, most of them supporters of the mosque.
Militants tried to kill Musharraf twice in December 2003 in Rawalpindi, where the Pakistani military is headquartered. First they placed a bomb intended to go off when his convoy passed by. When that didn’t work, suicide attackers tried to ram his motorcade with explosives-laden vehicles. The president was unhurt but 16 others died.
In addition to the Bhutto case, Musharraf also faces charges resulting from investigations into the killing of Akbar Bugti, a Baluch nationalist leader who died in August 2006 after a standoff with the Pakistani military. In another case, he’s accused of illegally removing a number of judges including the chief justice of the supreme court.