Pakistan's president left the country Thursday for what was described as a one-day private visit to Dubai, officials said. during a deepening crisis between the government and the powerful military.
Early last month, President Asif Ali Zardari traveled to Dubai for medical treatment, triggering rumors that he was either being pushed out by the army or was fleeing a potential coup.
He returned after a few weeks, but tensions have continued to soar in the country, with critics gleefully predicting the government's imminent downfall.
The officials said the trip was unconnected to the current crisis. They said the president would attend a wedding in Dubai and would be back in Pakistan on Friday morning. They didn't give their names because they were not authorized to release the information.
As Zardari left, military chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani met with top commanders, media reports and a military officer said, fueling speculation about the army's next move in the political crisis.
Most analysts say Kayani doesn't want a coup because the army is fighting Islamist militants, the country is facing economic ruin and seizing power would trigger domestic and international criticism. But they say the generals may be happy to allow a Supreme Court hostile to the government to dismiss Zardari if it can find a "constitutional" way to do so.
On Wednesday, the prime minister fired the defense secretary in a rare public display of assertiveness by the civilian government against the army, as the fallout from a scandal centered on a memo written to Washington asking for its help in reining in the generals widened.
The court, regarded as an ally of the army, is investigating that affair and a second one linked to past corruption cases against the president. Both could potentially be used as a pretext to oust the current civilian leadership, which is showing no signs of bending.
The crisis is consuming the attentions of the ruling elite in a country that is struggling to overcome economic turmoil and a bloody al-Qaida fueled insurgency.
Late Thursday, an American missile strike killed four foreign militants in North Waziristan, a lawless region close to the Afghan border that is home to extremists from around the world, Pakistani officials said. It was the second such strike in three days.
The U.S. had put the drone program on hold since late November, where errant American airstrikes killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers close to the border, enraging Islamabad. The lull was part of a broad effort to tamp down tensions with Pakistan as a result of the attacks.
Also Thursday, a group of militants with guns and grenades ambushed Pakistani soldiers during a search operation in the town of Sararogha in South Waziristan, killing four of them, two intelligence officials said.
The officials_ who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters about the issue _ provided no further details.
The army spokesman was not available for comment.
The army has ruled Pakistan for much of its six-decade existence, and it still sees itself as the rightful custodian of the country's interests. No civilian Pakistani government has ever completed its term in office.
The Zardari government, which was democratically elected in 2008, is determined to finish its term.
General elections are scheduled for next year, but could well take place sooner.
The leader of the country's main opposition party, Nawaz Sharif, is no friend of the army and would have little to gain if the military pushed Zardari out. Even so, he brought the memo scandal to the attention of the Supreme Court, and is trying to exploit the chaos and push for early polls.
"There is no justification for this government to stay in power any more," he told party members at a meeting to discuss the crisis, according to his spokesman.
The president's administration has been widely criticized for poor or ineffectual governance and alleged corruption. Still, domestic and international proponents of democracy say his government should be able to complete its term, and elections should decide the country's next leaders. They note successive military coups in Pakistan are a main cause of the country's current malaise.
Associated Press writer Rasool Dawar and Ishtiaq Mahsud contributed to this report from Peshawar and Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan.