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Pakistan, U.K. deny phone call over coup fears

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's prime minister telephoned the top British diplomat in the country this week expressing fears that the Pakistani army might be about to stage a coup, a British official and an official in Islamabad said Friday.

The Pakistani and British governments denied the report, which comes as tensions between Pakistan's army and government have soared in recent days, leading to speculation that the army might try to oust the civilian leadership.

Pakistani leaders have often looked to foreign powers, especially the United States and Gulf countries, to intervene in domestic affairs, mediate disputes between feuding power centers or "guarantee" agreements between them.

The army, which has staged four coups in Pakistan's history and is believed to consider itself the only true custodian of the country's interests, has never liked the civilian government headed by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari.

Pakistan's military and civilian leaders clash

But a scandal centered on an unsigned memo sent to Washington last year asking for its help in heading off a supposed coup has put the military and the government on a seeming collision course. The note enraged the army, which was still smarting from the humiliation of last year's unilateral American raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Pakistani envoy to U.S. resigns over memo

While most analysts say army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has little appetite for a coup, many believe the generals may be happy to allow the Supreme Court to dismiss the government by "constitutional means."

The reported phone call, which one official said was "panicky," would suggest a genuine fear at the highest level of the Pakistani government that army might carry out a coup or support possible moves by the Supreme Court to topple the civilian leadership.

Gilani asked High Commissioner Adam Thomson for Britain to support his embattled government, according to the officials, who didn't give their names because of the sensitivity of the issue. It's unclear if the British government took any action.

The British Foreign Office, however, said in a statement Friday there was "no phone call on this matter."

The prime minister's office also said Gilani had "not spoken to the British High Commissioner in this regard."

A Supreme Court commission is probing the memo affair. Any ruling from the court that strengthens suspicions that Zardari may have had a hand in the memo could be politically damaging to him.

The court has also ordered the government to open corruption investigations into Zardari dating back years. The government has refused. Earlier this week, the court said it could dismiss Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani over the case. Judges are convening Monday for what could be a decisive session.

Zardari traveled last month to Dubai for medical reasons, triggering widely reported rumors he was on the verge of resigning. On Thursday he traveled to the same city, citing "personal reasons," returning early Friday, said spokesman Farhatullah Babar.

Asked whether Zardari was concerned about his political future, Babar said, "Absolutely not. Why should he be? He is comfortable and perfectly all right."

In parliament on Friday, lawmakers loyal to the government introduced a resolution to express support for the government, a move that would give it a symbolic boost. The resolution, which will be put to a vote on Monday, pledges "full confidence and trust" in the political leadership and says all state institutions must act within limits imposed by the constitution — an apparent rebuke to the military for crossing into politics.

"Either there will be a democracy or dictatorship" in the country, Gilani said as the measure was introduced.

Pakistan is facing a host of problems, among them near economic collapse and a virulent al Qaeda- and Taliban-led insurgency. The fight against the militant has been complicated by allegations that the nuclear-armed country's main Inter-Services Intelligence is supporting some of the insurgents.

On Friday, a government-appointed commission investigating the unsolved murder of a journalist last year said that the ISI needed to be more "law-abiding." The report did not find enough evidence to name any perpetrators in the death of Saleem Shahzad, who was killed after he told friends he had been threatened by the ISI.

The commission called for the ISI to be made more accountable to the government through internal reviews and oversight by parliament. It said its interactions with reporters should be closely monitored.

Also Friday, militants assaulted a police station in the northwestern city of Peshawar, shooting dead three officers and wounding nine others, said police officer Saeed Khan.

The Pakistani Taliban have carried out hundreds of attacks on the country's army and other security forces since 2007. The attack came a day after militants armed with guns and grenades killed four Pakistani soldiers in an ambush in the South Waziristan tribal area.

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