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October 12, 1999
High drama preceded coup in PakistanA Special Correspondent
General Pervez Musharraf was concluding an official visit to Sri Lanka when he received a call from Islamabad on Tuesday evening. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief had "retired him with immediate effect", the caller said. Lieutenant General Khwaja Ziauddin, chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, had been promoted to full general and made the new chief of the army staff.
First news of this development arrived strangely via a Kashmiri news bulletin on PTV at 1200 GMT. Special bulletins then followed, showing General Ziauddin meeting Sharief at the prime minister's house and being decorated by one of the PM's military aides to mark his elevation to the rank of general.
Unlike his predecessor General Jehangir Karamat, whom Sharief had replaced last year, General Musharraf was not about to give in without a fight. Before he boarded a flight to Karachi, he spoke to the corps commander in Rawalpindi -- the most powerful of all of Pakistan's army commanders -- and ensured his loyalty and support for a counter-offensive against a leader who has greater parliamentary support than anyone else in the country's history.
A couple of hours later, shortly before General Musharraf arrived in Karachi, troops loyal to him took up positions inside the state-run PTV centre, disarming soldiers installed there earlier in the day in anticipation of his dismissal. The army closed down the airports in Islamabad and Lahore, and shut down state television and radio for a while.
Soldiers also surrounded Nawaz Sharief's residence in Islamabad, his private house in Lahore, and the home of Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharief, the premier's younger brother. Dawn.com reported, 'there are reports from usually reliable sources, though not yet independently confirmed, that Punjab Governor Zulfiqar Khosa has been taken into custody from the governor's house in Lahore.'
Asked what was going on at the PTV headquarters in downtown Islamabad, one army officer surrounding the building told Reuters: "You will find out in a short while."
Before it went off the air, PTV gave no reason for the move to sack the Pakistani COAS, which came less than a fortnight after the government said General Musharraf would complete his three-year tenure until October 2001. The government notification on September 29 was aimed at ending speculation about differences between Sharief and the army chief.
That notification came amidst persistent speculation by Pakistani Opposition politicians and newspapers that General Musharraf could resign following an unexpected American expression of concern last month about a possible fourth military takeover in Pakistan because of political upheaval.
Sharief had appointed General Musharraf COAS last year when General Karamat quit after making remarks that were seen to be critical of the prime minister, head of an increasingly powerful civilian government. General Karamat wanted the army to retain the power of veto over the administration, a proposal unacceptable to Sharief. The general went, and strangely the army did not react adversely to his exit.
He was not the only one whom Sharief forced out of office. President Farooq Ahmed Leghari and the chief justice of the Supreme Court were both vanquished when they took on the prime minister who was only half-way through his five-year term in office when he was dismissed.
Moreover, the courts have sent his most powerful political rival, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, into exile after convictions on corruption charges.
Speaking to CNN, South Asia expert Selig Harrison traced the current hostility to the Kargil conflict, an enterprise which General Musharraf is said to have undertaken without Sharief's consent or knowledge. The army was angered by the prime minister's July 4 journey to Washington where he agreed to US President Bill Clinton's proposal that Pakistan withdraw its troops from the icy heights.
Musharraf, Pakistan journalist Mansoor Ijaz told CNN tonight, was also angered by Sharief's attempts to replace corps commanders in Pakistan's command structure with officers of his choice.
Speaking to the BBC, Ahmed Rashid, The Far Eastern Economic Review's correspondent in Pakistan, felt General Musharraf's decision to sack another general who had met Sharief a few days ago may have finally provoked the prime minister to dismiss the army chief today.
General Musharraf's removal came a week after the naval chief, Admiral Fasih Bukhari, resigned, in protest over Sharief's decision to extend the general's tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee. Over the weekend, one of Pakistan's 10 corps commanders, Lt General Tariq Parvaiz was retired following reports of his individual meetings with politicians, as well as attempts to meet the prime minister, without informing the army chief.
In Washington, US state department spokesman James Rubin said the situation is "confusing". Pakistan's Ambassador to the US Riaz Khokar, he said, could not identify who was in control. "If there has been a coup" Rubin said, the US hopes for an early resumption of democracy in Pakistan, and till then there could be "no business as usual with Pakistan".
Asked if the US was concerned about who controls the nuclear weapons in Pakistan, he said there is "no fear right this moment, but that does not mean that this can't change".
In India, troops along the border, especially in the terrorism-hit Jammu and Kashmir, have been put on alert.
Interestingly, General Ziauddin had recently returned from the US after meetings with American army and intelligence officials. Reports from Washington, according to Dawn.com, had quoted US officials as saying that the Pakistan general had asked for American assistance to combat growing religious extremism in Pakistan.
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