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Tensions rise as Pakistan PM fires defense secretary

Pakistan's prime minister has dismissed the defense secretary amid spiking tensions between the army and the nuclear-armed country's government, an official said Wednesday.
Image: Pakistan's Prime minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani
Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani, seen here, fired retired Lt. Gen. Naeem Khalid Lodhi because of "misconduct" relating to his role in submitting statements by the army and spy chief to the Supreme Court.Fawad Hussein / EPA, file
/ Source: NBC, and news services

Pakistan's prime minister fired the defense secretary Wednesday in a dispute over a memo sent to Washington that has enraged the army, escalating a crisis pitting the civilian government against the powerful military leadership.

The army warned darkly of "grievous consequences" as a result of the standoff, which is hampering U.S. efforts to rebuild shattered ties with the nuclear-armed nation that are needed to negotiate an end to the war in neighboring Afghanistan. The tensions have consumed the ruling elite in a country that is struggling to overcome economic turmoil and a bloody al-Qaida fueled insurgency.

Amid the dispute gunmen have killed 14 paramilitary soldiers in southwestern Pakistan.

The attack late Wednesday took place close to Quetta in Baluchistan province.

Mohammed Rafiq says the gunmen ambushed the Frontier Corps patrol then fled into the hills.

Baluchistan is home to separatist rebels and Islamist militants, and both routinely attack state forces in the poor, remote region.

Image: Naeem Khalid Lodhi
This undated handout photograph obtained from the official website of Pakistan Defence Ministry shows defence secretary Naeem Khalid Lodhi, sacked by Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on January 11, 2012. Gilani sacked his defence secretary on January 11 for \"gross misconduct\" in triggering a row between the army and civilian leadership, a senior government official told AFP. AFP PHOTO/HO/PAKISTAN DEFENSE MINISTRY -----EDITORS NOTE---- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE MANDATORY CREDIT \"AFP PHOTO / HO / PAKISTAN DEFENCE MINISTRY\" ---- NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS (Photo credit should read HO/AFP/Getty Images)AFP

An official told The Associated Press that Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani fired retired Lt. Gen. Naeem Khalid Lodhi because of "misconduct" relating to his role in submitting statements by the army and spy chief to the Supreme Court about a scandal involving a memo sent to Washington that is rocking the country.

The official didn't give his name because of the sensitivity of the situation, the AP said. NBC News later confirmed that Gilani had dismissed Lodhi.

Lodhi is an army appointee in the government, and is regarded as having more power than the defense minister.

A senior military official told Reuters the latest tension was "very serious," and Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported that the army chief had summoned an emergency meeting of the corps of commanders.

Distrust between civilian leaders and the generals has bedeviled the South Asian country for almost its entire existence, with the military ruling for more than half of its 64-year history after a series of coups.

In another sign of worsening relations between the military and the civilian government, Pakistan's Army Chief Ashfaq Pervez Kayani used very threatening language in response to a recent interview given by Gilani, in which the prime minister said that army and intelligence chiefs' recent statements before the court were unconstitutional.

Army Chief Ashfaq Pervez Kayani warned "there can be no allegation more serious" than Gilani's.

Gilani said in an interview to a Chinese newspaper that ran on Monday that Kayani and the head of the main spy agency, Lt Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, had violated the constitution. The interview was also published by Pakistan's state-run news agency.

Tensions between the army and the government of President Asif Ali Zardari have soared since the scandal involving a memo sent to Washington asking for its help in reining in the army broke late last year. The memo outraged the army, and the Supreme Court ordered a probe to establish whether it had been sanctioned by Zardari.

In December, Zardari flew to Dubai for medical treatment sparking rumors that he had fled the country anticipating a coup.

Kayani last month dismissed coup rumors as speculation and said the army supported democracy. Zardari returned after about two weeks.

Although Pakistan is a U.S. ally, their relations are often difficult and anti-U.S. sentiment runs high.