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Pakistan on edge as Gilani fires defence secretary

ISLAMABAD: The powerful Pakistani army and the civilian government were on a collision course after Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani sacked the defence secretary on Wednesday and army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani warning the former’s critical remarks against the ISI chief and him over the memo scandal.

Ominously, the Pakistan ar­my changed the commander of a Rawalpindi-based unit that has traditionally played a vital role in military coups as Gen Kayani gathered his key aides to assess an escalation in tens­i­ons with the civilian governm­ent.

Brig Sarfaraz Ali was named the new commander of the 111 Brigade, an infantry formation that is part of the X Corps and has usually been called out during past military takeovers to take over key buildings and installations in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, sources said.

Just minutes after Gen Kayani’s strongly-worded warning, Gilani sacked Defence Secretary Lt Gen (retired) Khalid Naeem Lodhi, considered close to the army chief, marking an escalation in the row. Hours after the dismissal, Gilani said the top defence official had violated rules of business and had to go.

The fast-paced developments came as the government headed for confrontation with the judiciary too, with the Supreme Court warning on Tuesday that action could be taken against President Asif Ali Zardari and the prime minister for failing to act on a court order to reopen corruption case against Zardari. Amid a looming confrontation between the Supreme Court and the government, Zardari on Wednesday made it clear that he did not intend to resign even as an urgent session of parliament has been called to consider the situation. Zardari through his spokesman refuted reports that he had offered to resign at a meeting of his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and its allies late on Tuesday night.

But it was Gen Kayani’s belligerent stand which is being seen by Pakistan observers as the principle source of a tension that could potentially destabilise the elected government, with “very serious ramifications” for the country.

A terse army statement reac­ted sharply to Gilani’s cont­ention that the Gen Kayani and ISI chief Lt Gen Ahmed Sh­uja Pasha had acted in an illegal manner in the memo scandal.

These remarks could have “very serious ramifications with potentially grievous consequences”, the statement warned and added, “There can be no allegation more serious than what the honourable prime minister has levelled against COAS and DG ISI (army chief and spy chief) and has unfortunately charged the officers for violation of the constitution of the country,” said the army’s statement.

Two days ago Gilani remarked in an interview with the online edition of China’s state-run People’s Daily that the replies filed by Gen Kayani and Lt Gen Pasha to the Supreme Court in connection with the alleged memo did not have the approval of the competent authority as required under the rules of business.

He further said no formal proposal seeking the approval of the competent authority for these two replies was initiated by the defence ministry.

No approval was obtained for the replies from the defence minister and any official action by a government functionary without the government’s prior approval is “unconstitutional and illegal”, Gilani had said.

Sources said the military leadership had gathered details about Gilani’s remarks during the interview. The matter was then assessed by Gen Kayani and top army commanders on Tuesday so that the military could issue a formal response, the sources told PTI.

The military statement contended that Gilani’s remarks did not “take into account” some “important facts”.

It further contended that the army and ISI chiefs were not responsible for obtaining approval for the replies they had sent to the Supreme Court.

The statement said the army and ISI chiefs were named as respondents in petitions filed in the apex court regarding the alleged memo and the court had “served notices directly to the respondents”.

This was not objected to by the attorney general, it said. The responses of the army and ISI chiefs were sent to the defence ministry for submission to the Supreme Court through the attorney general.

A letter was dispatched to the attorney general and the apex court, informing them that the replies of the army and ISI chiefs had been submitted to the defence ministry. “Responsibility for moving summaries and obtaining approvals of competent authority lay with the relevant ministries and not with the respondents,” the statement added.

The military pointed out that following a meeting between the prime minister and the army chief on December 16 last year, Gilani had stated in a press release that the replies submitted to the apex court were “in response to the notice of the court through proper channel and in accordance with the rules of business”.

“No objections were raised before and thereafter on the legality and constitutional status of the replies, at any time, during the last more than three weeks of hearing of the case by the Honourable Supreme Court,” the statement said.

“Any expectation that (the army chief) will not state the facts is neither constitutional nor legal. Allegiance to state and the Constitution is and will always remain prime consideration for the (army chief), who in this case has followed the book,” the statement said.

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