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Pakistan army reshuffle as tensions with government rise

Pakistan's prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, sacked his defence secretary yesterday hours after the military warned that his sustained attacks on the army chief could have "grievous consequences for the country".

ISLAMABAD // Pakistan's prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, sacked his defence secretary yesterday hours after the military warned that his sustained attacks on the army chief could have "grievous consequences for the country".

The blunt moves are the latest sign of rapidly rising tensions between Pakistan's embattled civilian government and its powerful armed forces.

The head of the army, General Ashraf Kayani, has called a meeting of senior officers today and reshuffled some posts last night.

Retired Lieutenant-General Naeem Khalid Lodhi, the defence secretary and regarded as close to Gen Kayani, headed the defence department and was appointed on the recommendation of the military.

Mr Lodhi was fired for "gross misconduct and illegal action" and for having created a misunderstanding between the government and the military, a statement from the prime minister's office said,without giving details. His abrupt removal is likely to anger the military leadership.

"They are on a collision course with both having divergent approaches," said the retired army general turned analyst, Talat Masood.

Mr Lodhi is being replaced by Nargis Sethi, a career bureaucrat seen as being close to Mr Gilani.

The latest tensions were sparked by a supreme court inquiry, opened last week, into allegations the government sent a memo through an intermediary to Washington, seeking help to head off a possible military coup after the army was angered by last May's secret US raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani army town.

In an interview with the China Daily published while Gen Kayani was on an official visit to Beijing, Mr Gilani said the army chief and the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency, Ahmed Shuja Pasha, had illegally sent their submissions to the court without the government's permission.

The army warned yesterday that Mr Gilani's comments have "very serious ramifications with potentially grievous consequences for the country".

Last month, Mr Lodhi told the court the government had no operational control over the army or the ISI.

Local TV stations said yesterday Gen Kayani had reshuffled some senior officers.

The reports fuelled speculation the military could be headed for a showdown with a civilian government weakened by public anger over its links with the US - even as those links deteriorate - a weak economy and corruption across the country.

In a case separate to the memo inquiry, the supreme court warned on Tuesday it could dismiss Mr Gilani if he continued to refuse its orders to reopen graft cases against the president, Asif Ali Zardari.

In remarks taken as directed at the military, which has ruled Pakistan for half its existence and remains the single most powerful force in the country, Mr Gilani said last month that conspiracies were being hatched to topple the government and that the country could not tolerate a state-within-a-state. His remarks prompted Gen Kayani to deny he was planning a coup.

Mr Zardari travelled to Dubai for medical treatment last month, sparking speculation he would resign and not return. However, he returned to Pakistan after two weeks.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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