Pakistan's leader returns home amid scandal

AFP , Monday 19 Dec 2011

Pakistani President Zardari returns home after being told by doctors he could leave Dubai where he spent two weeks undergoing medical treatment

Pakistan's beleaguered President Asif Ali Zardari returned suddenly on Monday from two weeks of medical treatment abroad, seeking to dispel rumours that scandal and illness could force him from office.

He returned, under the cover of darkness on a chartered plane, as the Supreme Court decided whether to order an inquiry into allegations that one of his aides sought American help in limiting the power of the military.

The head of the army, General Ashfaq Kayani, last week called for an investigation into a memo allegedly written because Zardari feared he could be ousted in a coup after a covert US raid killed Osama bin Laden on 2 May.

Kayani said the memo had impacted national security. The scandal has inflamed tensions between Zardari's weak government and the military, which has staged four coups in Pakistan and remains the chief arbiter of power.

But aides denied Monday that Zardari's return had anything to do with the Supreme Court, saying he would meet leaders from his Pakistan People's Party in Karachi for business as usual before returning to the capital Islamabad.

"The doctors told him he was fit to travel... and he left for Pakistan. There is no other reason for this," a senior member of the party told AFP.

"The speculation and controversies are over. He is here and will face all controversies," added Qamar Zaman Kaira, a leader in Pakistan's main ruling party.

Zardari will attend the fourth anniversary commemorations for the assassination of his wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, on 27 December and then return to the capital, spokesman Aijaz Durrani said.

The 56-year-old president flew to Dubai on 6 December and was kept in the American Hospital until 14 December for an illness that has not been officially disclosed, but which aides have likened to a "mini stroke".

His sudden departure, at a time of the developing scandal and a major crisis in relations with Washington over NATO's killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers on 26 November, fanned frenzied speculation that he may resign.

On Monday, the Supreme Court met to examine a petition from the political opposition demanding to know who was responsible for the 10 May memo sent to then US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen.

American businessman Mansoor Ijaz has claimed that Zardari feared the military might overthrow his government and accused Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to Washington, of crafting the memo with Zardari's support.

Haqqani, who was forced to resign last month, denied any involvement but he has already been restricted from leaving Pakistan.

Retired general Talat Masood said that by returning, Zardari sent a message that he was unconcerned by the court proceedings, but that it was clear the military was expanding its influence at the expense of the government.

"But this does not mean that the military does not understand its own limitations. It knows it cannot possibly dislocate or displace a civilian, constitutionally elected government and replace it," Masood told AFP.

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