Zardari returns to Pakistan to face accusations of treason

Embattled President is investigated over claims he sought US aid to rein in military

Islamabad

Pakistan's President, Asif Ali Zardari, has returned to his country from medical treatment in the Middle East as his government struggles to fight off allegations of treason sparked by the so-called Memogate scandal.

The embattled Mr Zardari suddenly left Dubai where he been recovering from a mild stroke to arrive in Karachi in the middle of the night, just hours before the Supreme Court held its latest hearings into the affair. It is investigating whether Mr Zardari or his aides sought US military help to rein in his own country's generals.

"The President is thankfully fit and healthy and that is why he has returned," Shazia Marri, the local information minister, told Reuters.

The controversy centres on a note dispatched by a Pakistani-American businessman to the US military in the aftermath of the May raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The businessman, Mansoor Ijaz, said in a subsequent newspaper article that he had been asked to pass on the memo from a senior Pakistani diplomat.

The controversy has already claimed one scalp. Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the US and a close ally of Mr Zardari, was forced to step down after Mr Ijaz accused him of asking him to draft and pass on the memo, apparently at the behest of the President. Mr Haqqani has denied this.

Last week there were further waves when Mr Ijaz confirmed to The Independent that he was told by US intelligence sources that Pakistan's military was indeed contemplating ousting Mr Zardari in the aftermath of the Bin Laden raid.

The Supreme Court investigation into the affair and the alleged role of the various personalities followed a request filed by the opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif. Yesterday, the court asked the various parties to respond to the allegations and adjourned the hearing until Thursday.

The affair is the latest incident to underscore the deepening divide between Mr Zardari's weak and unpopular civilian government, and a military that has recovered from the embarrassment of the Bin Laden raid.

In an effort to ease some of those tensions, the Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, held a three-hour crisis meeting with army chief General Ashfaq Kayani over the weekend. Analysts say it was a sign that the military does not wish to topple the government.

Instead, the focus of the army's rage appears to be Mr Haqqani, a fierce critic of the military and whose alleged role is being examined by the court. The army's senior commanders have been telling their formations that it is Mr Haqqani who is responsible for the controversial memo. They have stopped short of directly accusing Mr Zardari.

The drama has played out even as the relationship between the US and Pakistan has plunged to a new low. This was triggered by a Nato air strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers located on the border with Afghanistan. The supply route through Pakistan remains shut as a result of the stand-off.

Precisely how the Memogate controversy will conclude is unclear. Although Mr Zardari has returned to Pakistan, ending rumours that he was to remain out of the country, the pressure may continue as old corruption charges threaten to resurface in the new year.

In the days ahead, he will spend time convalescing. He is due to speak on the fourth anniversary of the murder of his wife, the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, on 27 December.

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