KARACHI, Nov 29: Former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto will end her exile and lead her party to victory in the next election, her husband Asif Ali Zardari said following his release from jail.

"She is surely coming and will lead the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) in the next general election," Mr Zardari told AFP in an interview on Sunday at his Bilawal House residence.

"I can't give you the date, but she will be here for the next elections," Mr Zardari said, insisting 2005 would be election year in Pakistan. "Bhutto will create history by becoming the premier for the third time."

Mr Zardari, who spent eight years in detention, was released on Monday last week after the Supreme Court granted him bail in the last of 17 cases of graft, murder and drug smuggling.

"Ms Bhutto has a role to play in Pakistan politics and the vote bank belongs to her," he said. Ms Benazir, who governed Pakistan twice - from 1988 to 1990 and 1993 to 1996 - lives in self-imposed exile in London and Dubai.

She left Pakistan in April 1998 and was convicted in absentia of corruption and other charges which she rejects as political victimization to keep her away from last polls held in 2002.

The government has said the present parliament would complete its five-year tenure until 2007. Mr Zardari rejected speculation that his release was linked to any deal with the government.

"I rejected all offers and preferred prison," he said. "Democracy is our shield and we cannot compromise with the authoritarian rulers," he said. He said his "villainous image" was painted by successive authoritarian governments to malign Ms Benazir.

Mr Zardari, who was arrested on Nov 4, 1996 said during custody intelligence agencies wanted "to break me through physical and mental torture in order to pressure Ms Bhutto, but they failed."

"Sleep deprivation for hours during interrogation resulted in my spine problem," he said. "I was asked to sit on a chair, which was not very comfortable. When I started getting sleepy they forced me not to sleep and asked all kind of questions."

On the possibility of accepting Gen Pervez Musharraf as both president and the army chief, Mr Zardari said: "Democracy and authoritarian rules can't go together." "He (Musharraf) can contest fresh presidential elections, but not as a general. It goes without saying."

Mr Zardari expressed his confidence in bringing all the political parties from liberal to secular and progressive to religious on one platform. "I can be a bridge for all the political forces to agree on minimum points of democracy and supremacy of parliament," he said.

He was first arrested in 1990 when Ms Bhutto's political foe Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League was prime minister. He spent 28 months facing criminal and corruption charges.

As minister and senator he remained active in political affairs until Ms Benazir's second government was dismissed by then President Farooq Leghari in 1996. Analysts believe his release after numerous trials could herald political reconciliation in Pakistan. -AFP

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