Huge crowds as Benazir Bhutto's son makes political debut

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (centre) waves to supporters during his arrival for a public gathering in Karachi on Oct 18, 2014. Tens of thousands of supporters gathered in Karachi to hear the son of the country's slain premier Benazir Bhutto, on the formal
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (centre) waves to supporters during his arrival for a public gathering in Karachi on Oct 18, 2014. Tens of thousands of supporters gathered in Karachi to hear the son of the country's slain premier Benazir Bhutto, on the formal launch of his political career. -- PHOTO: AFP 

KARACHI (AFP) - Tens of thousands of Pakistanis gathered on Saturday to hear Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of slain former premier Benazir Bhutto, address a massive rally billed as his formal political debut.

Ultra-tight security measures were in place for the rally in Pakistan's biggest city Karachi, where huge crowds of supporters sang and danced, waving the flag of Bhutto's main opposition Pakistan People's Party (PPP).

Bilawal, 26, is being groomed to lead the party by his father Asif Ali Zardari, who was Pakistan's president from 2008 until last year.

The rally marked the seventh anniversary of the devastating bomb attack that hit Benazir Bhutto's homecoming parade in Karachi on Oct 18, 2007, killing 139 people in the deadliest single terror attack on Pakistani soil.

Bilawal arrived at the rally by helicopter and was set to address the crowds from the same bullet and bomb-proof truck that his mother used for the ill-fated parade, which was meant to mark her triumphant return after nearly a decade of self-imposed exile.

She survived the bombing, but was assassinated in a gun and suicide attack in an election rally in Rawalpindi two months later.

"I start this journey for my people, for the martyrs, for my mother," Bilawal wrote on his Twitter page ahead of the rally.

"Boarding the truck bought back some painful memories."

Analysts say the main purpose of Saturday's rally is to present Bilawal as the true political heir to his charismatic mother, who twice served as prime minister.

"From Khyber to Karachi peoples are chanting welcome Benazir welcome and bidding farewell to the political orphans," read another post on Bilawal's Twitter page.

The tweet did not name cricket star turned opposition politician Imran Khan, but party sources say the rally was planned to combat the political threat posed by Khan, who they accuse of having the patronage of Pakistan's powerful military.

Khan, along with populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, has been staging a sit-in in the capital Islamabad since Aug 15 aimed at toppling Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Protest rallies have also been held in other Pakistani cities, attracting huge crowds.

Thousands of police officers and commandos were deployed for Saturday's rally at Karachi's Bagh-e-Jinnah park, while hundreds of security gates were set up to scan the crowds as they entered the venue.

Hundreds of shipping containers were placed around the perimeter as part of security measures, while roads within a couple of kilometres' radius were closed.

But the mood inside was jubilant ahead of Bhutto's keynote speech, with women and children whirling to the rhythm of party songs, wearing the red, green and black of the party flag.