ISLAMABAD - Pakistan's army warned Jan. 11 of "grievous consequences" for the country over criticism by the prime minister that has ramped up tensions between the military and civilian leadership.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani immediately sacked the top bureaucrat in the defense ministry over the row, with the government saying the official had been the cause of the "misunderstanding" with the military.
The spat centers on a Supreme Court inquiry set up to investigate a controversial unsigned memo allegedly delivered to the U.S. military seeking its help in curbing Pakistan's highly powerful armed forces in May.
In an unusually bold interview with Chinese media earlier this week, Gilani accused the army and intelligence chiefs of failing to make their submissions to the commission through government channels.
The army issued a statement on Jan. 11 vociferously denying Gilani's accusation and saying it had passed its response through the defense ministry to the court in accordance with the law.
"There can be no allegation more serious than what the honorable prime minister has leveled against COAS (army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani) and DG ISI (spy chief Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha) and has unfortunately charged the officers for violation of the constitution of the country," the army's statement said. "This has very serious ramifications with potentially grievous consequences for the country."
Kayani returned on Jan. 10 from China and met on Jan. 11 with the head of Myanmar's air force in Rawalpindi.
Pakistan has seen three military coups since independence in 1947. It has spent about half of its life under military dictatorships.
The current civilian administration headed by Zardari has lurched from crisis to crisis since coming to power in 2008 following elections held a month after the assassination of his wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
Defense secretary Naeem Khalid Lodhi was fired over what the government called a "misunderstanding" between Gilani and the top brass caused by his failure to pass court submissions through the prime minister's office.
"Prime minister has terminated the contract of defense secretary Naeem Khalid Lodhi for gross misconduct," a senior government official told AFP.
The army's statement cast doubt on the government's claim and said that Gilani had issued a press release last month apparently approving the army's replies to the court as being made "through proper channel."
The statement also defended submissions made to the memo inquiry as in accordance with the military's obligation to "state the facts."
The highly controversial memo was allegedly an attempt by President Asif Ali Zardari through Husain Haqqani - a close aide and then-ambassador to the United States - to enlist help from the U.S. military to head off a feared coup in Pakistan.
American businessman Mansoor Ijaz has claimed that Zardari reportedly feared that the military might seize power in a bid to limit the hugely damaging fallout after U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May.
Tension between the army and Zardari's weak civilian administration soared over the note, allegedly delivered to then-chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen in May and made public by Ijaz in October.
Pakistan's Supreme Court last week decided to set up a judicial commission to investigate the matter and Pasha, the head of the ISI intelligence agency, has called for a "forensic examination" of the memo.
Haqqani has already resigned over the affair and the court has stopped him from leaving Pakistan. At the second meeting of the commission held on Jan. 9, he repeated his denial of any involvement in the scandal.
The commission, being held in Islamabad, is to meet again on Jan. 16 and is expected to submit its findings within four weeks.
The probe puts fresh pressure on the president, who visited Dubai in December over health fears, with most observers expecting early elections sometime in 2012.
NICOSIA, Cyprus - Cypriot authorities released on Jan. 11 a cargo ship carrying tons of munitions after receiving a pledge the vessel would not proceed to unrest-swept Syria as originally scheduled.
The foreign ministry said the Saint Vincent-flagged cargo ship Chariot was allowed to refuel and set sail from the port of Limassol after its Russian owners agreed to change the destination.
The ship, which set sail from Saint Petersburg on Dec. 9, called into Limassol on Jan. 10 following bad weather, said government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou.
During a check of the ship's documents it was "determined the ship was carrying dangerous cargo destined for Syria and Turkey" and prevented from setting sail, the foreign ministry said.
The ministry said it was unable to physically check the four containers on board due to a lack of space to maneuver, but after consultations with the owners, the vessel was given the green light.
However, the media said the ship carried tons of munitions and explosives and was put under guard.
The Chariot was reportedly carrying between 35 and 60 tons of munitions and explosives bound for the port of Latakia in Syria, where thousands of people have been killed since March in a government crackdown on dissent.
"The rules and decisions of the Council of the European Union governing restrictive measures in relation to the situation in Syria were taken into account. It was ascertained no EU measures were violated," the ministry said.
Stefanou told state radio it was decided the vessel would be released after the ship agreed to change its destination and "not go to Syria," in keeping with "all international regulations."
The new destination was not disclosed.
The incident comes exactly six months after seized Iranian munitions exploded at a Cypriot naval base on July 11, killing six firemen and seven military personnel.
The containers had been at the base since their seizure in 2009 when Cyprus intercepted, under pressure from the United States and other Western nations, a Cypriot-flagged freighter bound from Iran for Syria.
The explosion of the containers, which had been stored in the open air, also knocked out the island's main power plant. Criminal charges against those deemed responsible are expected to be filed next week.
SEOUL, South Korea - North Korea said Jan. 11 that the United States had offered food aid and a suspension of sanctions if it halted its uranium enrichment program.
The comments by a foreign ministry spokesman to Pyongyang's official news agency were the first by the North on the issue.
Before the sudden death of the North's leader Kim Jong-Il on Dec. 17, there were several media reports that such an agreement was imminent.
At talks in July last year, Washington "proposed to take confidence-building steps such as suspension of sanctions, as well as food aid" in return for a "temporary suspension" of uranium enrichment, the North's spokesman said.
Experts say the uranium program disclosed in November 2010 could give the communist state a second way to make nuclear weapons. The disclosure spurred efforts to revive stalled six-party nuclear disarmament negotiations.
The U.S. and North Korea last year held two rounds of bilateral talks aimed at restarting the negotiations last held in December 2008.
A third round was reportedly scheduled in Beijing before the announcement of Kim's death put the process on hold.
The spokesman's statement suggested that a deal was still on the cards if the U.S. raised the amount of food it is willing to offer. "We will watch if the U.S. truly wants to build confidence," it said.
Washington says any decision to offer humanitarian food aid would not be linked to other issues, but the spokesman accused the United States of politicizing the issue.
Robert King, U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights, met senior North Korean foreign ministry official Ri Gun in Beijing in December to discuss a possible resumption of U.S. food aid.
South Korean media reports at the time said the North had agreed to suspend its uranium program while the U.S. would provide up to 240,000 tons of food.
The U.S. pledged 500,000 tons of rice in 2008. Shipments stopped the following year amid questions over transparency of the distribution, and Pyongyang told the Americans to leave.
The North's spokesman said Jan. 11 the U.S. had failed to provide 330,000 tons of the amount promised three years ago.
In recent talks it "has drastically changed the amount and items of provision contrary to the originally promised food aid", the spokesman said, adding this raised doubts about Washington's willingness to build confidence.
The U.S. is offering high-energy biscuits and similar nutritional supplements in its latest package, rather than rice which could be diverted to the military or the elite.
UN agencies that visited in February 2011 said six million North Koreans - a quarter of the population - need urgent aid in a nation where hundreds of thousands died in a famine in the 1990s.
MIRANSHAH, Pakistan - The deadly U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan's tribal zone resumed with a missile strike that killed four militants, two months after a NATO raid that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
The CIA campaign had reportedly been suspended to avoid worsening relations between the United States and Pakistan after the deadly Nov. 26 incident, which eroded even more the thin veneer of trust between the wary allies.
The four militants were killed late Jan. 10 when two missiles struck their compound on the outskirts of Miranshah in North Waziristan, a lawless tribal region near the Afghan border, security officials said.
The attack set the building on fire, and flames could be seen from the roofs of houses in Miranshah, which lies three miles away, residents reported.
It was the first missile strike in Pakistan since Nov. 17. It remains to be seen if it presages a new round of attacks on Taliban and al-Qaida-linked militants based in the remote territory bordering Afghanistan.
November's strike by NATO helicopters triggered outrage in Pakistan and aggravated tensions in an already shaky relationship with Washington. The incident prompted Islamabad to block alliance supply convoys heading to Afghanistan.
Islamabad also ordered the U.S. to last month leave Shamsi air base in western Pakistan, from where it is believed to have launched some of its drones. Others are thought to be fired from within Afghanistan.
A joint U.S.-NATO investigation concluded last month that a catalogue of errors and botched communications led to the soldiers' deaths. But Pakistan rejected the findings, insisting the strikes had been deliberate.
NATO's probe said that both sides failed to give the other information about their operational plans or the location of troops and that there was inadequate coordination by U.S. and Pakistani officers.
The U.S. drone campaign has reportedly killed dozens of al-Qaida operatives and hundreds of low-ranking fighters in Pakistan since the first Predator strike in 2004.
But the program has incensed many Pakistanis and fuels widespread anti-American sentiment throughout the country.
The Los Angeles Times reported last month that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had suspended drone strikes on gatherings of low-ranking militants in Pakistan due to the tensions caused by the campaign.
The latest drone strike came on the same day that a remote-controlled bomb killed 35 people and wounded more than 60 others in the troubled Khyber tribal region of northwest Pakistan.
The region had served as the main supply route for NATO forces operating in Afghanistan before the suspension triggered by the November incident.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bombing but local residents suggested it was a tribal dispute.
The U.S. denounced the blast, which struck in a marketplace.
"By callously targeting innocent peoples, the extremists who planned and perpetrated this attack are just showing their contempt for the value of human life," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
"We remain deeply committed to working with Pakistan to address these kinds of terrorist threats and the results of violent extremism," she said.
Nuland added that Washington could not confirm reports that al-Qaida was behind the attack.
The border crossing for supplies to foreign troops fighting in Afghanistan remains closed. NATO said this month that it wants to get relations with Pakistan back on track "as quickly as possible" so it can be reopened.