Pakistan's president left the troubled country yesterday for what was described as a one-day private visit to Dubai, officials said, in the midst of a deepening crisis between the government and the powerful military.
Early last month, Asif Ali Zardari travelled to Dubai for medical treatment, triggering rumours 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.
As Mr Zardari left, the military chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani met with top commanders, fuelling 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 Mr Zardari if it can find a "constitutional" way to do so.
On Wednesday, the prime minister fired the defence secretary in a rare public display of assertiveness by the civilian government against the army, as the fallout from a scandal centred on a memo written to Washington asking for its help in reining in the generals widened.