The continuing face-off between Pakistan’s political and military leaders spiralled into the open on Wednesday, with prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani sacking the defence secretary — known to be close to army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani — and rumours of a military takeover sweeping the country.
Gilani announced that Lt Gen (retd) Khalid Naeem Lodhi had been replaced by cabinet secretary Nargis Sethi, a bureaucrat whose loyalties are with the civilian government.
Lodhi’s sacking followed Gilani publicly accusing Kayani and ISI chief Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha of acting against the constitution in the handling of Memogate.
The army hit back, warning that the allegations were very serious and could have “potentially grievous consequences”.
There were rumours that the military might stage a coup and President Asif Ali Zardari might replace the army chief.
A change in the command of the 111 Brigade, the crack army unit involved in previous military takeovers, fuelled the coup talk. But the army said Brig Sarfaraz Ali’s appointment was routine.
Gilani first made the accusations on Monday in an interview with the online edition of China’s People’s Daily during Kayani’s trip to China.
Gilani had said the responses filed by Kayani and Pasha in the Memogate case coming up before the supreme court were “unconstitutional and illegal”.
But the army said Kayani and Pasha were cited as respondents in the case by the court and served notices directly.
The case — at the heart of the crisis — is about an alleged memo that sought US help to stave off a feared military coup after the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May.
The case may result in Zardari being forced to step down. The military is hoping the supreme court will rule that Zardari conspired with the US against the Pakistan army.
Amid the tensions, the government on Wednesday clarified it was not sacking Kayani or Pasha. “The government does not want to remove or replace the chief of army staff or ISI director general,” Gilani said.
Gilani was to address the nation, but this was suddenly cancelled. He and Zardari went into a huddle in the evening. Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif said early polls were the only way out of the crisis.