Pakistan's president left the country for what was described as a one-day private visit to Dubai, amid a deepening crisis between the government and the powerful military, officials said.
Early last month, President Asif Ali Zardari traveled 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.
The officials said that the president would attend a wedding in Dubai and would be back in Pakistan on Friday morning, in a trip unconnected to the current crisis. 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 army has ruled Pakistan for much of its six-decade existence, and still sees itself as the rightful custodian of the country's interests. No civilian government has ever completed its term in office.
The Zardari government, which was democratically elected in 2008, is determined to see out its term.
General elections are scheduled for next year, but could well take place sooner.
Zardari's opponents may be eager to bring the crisis to a head and dissolve parliament before March senate elections. The body's lower house, currently dominated by the president's party, directly elects senators who serve a six-year term. If the elections are held with the current parliament in place, Zardari's allies will have a strong foothold in government through 2018.
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. But 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 ineptness, 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.
The crisis is consuming the attentions of the ruling elite in a country that is struggling to overcome economic turmoil and a bloody al-Qa'ida fueled insurgency.
Late on 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 US 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.