updated 9/14/2007 9:14:13 AM ET 2007-09-14T13:14:13

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto will return to Pakistan from an eight-year exile on Oct. 18, her party said Friday. The government said she was free to come back but would have to face corruption cases against her.

Makhdoom Amin Fahim, vice president of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, announced the date at a press conference and said that Bhutto would fly back to Karachi. Supporters, throwing flower petals over assembled party leaders, chanted: “Long Live Benazir! Prime Minister Benazir!”

“The people of Pakistan will get real democracy” after Bhutto’s return, Fahim said, speaking in front of a huge portrait of the party leader.

Bhutto, who is in talks with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf that could see them share power after elections, would not be deported in the manner of another former premier, Nawaz Sharif, a government spokesman said. Sharif was expelled hours after he flew in on Monday.

That action sidelined Musharraf’s chief political rival while underlining the general’s willingness to take authoritarian steps to extend his eight-year rule, amid a surge in attacks by Islamic militants.

Bhutto’s return date falls after the range of dates in which Musharraf is expected to seek re-election as president, between Sept. 15 and Oct. 15.

'Sharif's case was different'
In an interview Friday, Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim drew a clear distinction between the rights of Sharif and Bhutto to return to Pakistan.

“Nawaz Sharif’s case was different. He went back to Saudi Arabia because of an undertaking he had with the Saudi government,” Azim told The Associated Press. “She (Bhutto) was always allowed to come back.”

Asked about pending corruption cases against Bhutto, he added: “It’s for the law to take its own course. Everybody has to face cases against them and the same applies to her.”

Azim said the talks with Bhutto were snagged over her desire for the corruption cases to be closed, for a constitutional amendment to let her seek a third term as prime minister, and over the president’s re-election.

“The talks are continuing but not at the same pace we might have wished. It’s in the national interest for a resolution between political leaders to be reached. But it should be in the national interest, not in the personal interest of anyone,” Azim said.

Bhutto has led her party from exile since leaving Pakistan in 1999 over the corruption allegations.

Deal with Musharraf?
She risks a backlash among the public and her party if she strikes an agreement with the U.S.-allied military leader, who ousted Sharif in a 1999 coup.

On Friday, Sharif’s party urged her not to reach terms with Musharraf.

“We welcome her coming back, but let me say that it will be an insult to democracy if she agrees to share power with a man who ousted the elected government of Nawaz Sharif and has caused irreparable damage to democratic institutions,” said Sadiq ul-Farooq, a senior figure in the party.

Musharraf, a key Washington ally, has been trying for months to reach an agreement with Bhutto that would overcome legal obstacles to him seeking a new five-year term.

With less than five weeks before the presidential election, Bhutto’s party says time is running out, though with Sharif out of the way, Musharraf may be in a stronger position to dictate terms.

Azim said the schedule for the presidential vote would be announced in the next three or four days.

Azim confirmed reports that the chief of the ruling party, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, had suggested that Musharraf’s wife, Sebha, could be a backup candidate for the presidency if Musharraf was ruled ineligible to run.

He defended the notion as “traditional” in Pakistani politics.

“I don’t know if it would be acceptable to the president or his wife,” Azim said.

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