ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's prime minister telephoned the top British diplomat in the country this week expressing fears that the Pakistani army might be about to stage a coup, a British official and an official in Islamabad said Friday.
The call, which one official said was "panicky", suggests there was — or perhaps still is — a genuine fear at the highest level of the Pakistani government that army might carry out a coup or support possible moves by the Supreme Court to topple the civilian leadership.
Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani asked High Commissioner Adam Thomson for Britain to support his embattled government, according to the officials, who didn't give their names because of the sensitivity of the issue. It's unclear if the British government took any action.
Such is the weakness of state institutions, Pakistani leaders have often looked to foreign powers, especially the United States and Gulf countries, to intervene in domestic affairs, mediate disputes between feuding power centers or "guarantee" agreements between them.
The army, which has staged four coups in Pakistan's history and is believed to consider itself the only true custodian of the country's interests, has never liked the civilian government headed by Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari.
But a scandal that erupted late last year, which centered on an unsigned memo sent to Washington asking for its help in heading off a supposed coup following the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, has brought the army and civilian government into near-open confrontation.
While most analysts say army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has little appetite for a coup, they say the generals may be happy to allow the Supreme Court to dismiss the government by "constitutional means."
A Supreme Court commission is probing the memo affair, which in theory could lead to Zardari's ouster.
The court has also ordered the government to open corruption investigations into Zardari dating back years. The government has refused. Earlier this week, the court said it could dismiss Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani over the case. Judges are convening Monday for what could be a decisive session.
While its lawmakers are widely seen as both corrupt and ineffectual, they — unlike the army and the judges — have some legitimacy because they were elected to office. Pakistan history of successive military coups and interference in the democratic process by the courts and the army are main cause of the country's current malaise, proponents of democracy say.
The nuclear-armed country is facing a host of problems, among them near economic collapse and a virulent al-Qaida- and Taliban-led insurgency. The fight against the militant has been complicated by allegations that the country's main Inter-Services Intelligence is supporting some of the insurgents.
On Friday, a government-appointed commission investigating the unsolved murder of a journalist last year said that the ISI needed to be more "law-abiding." The report did not find enough evidence to name any perpetrators in the death of Saleem Shahzad, who was killed after he told friends he had been threatened by the ISI.
The commission called on the ISI to be made more accountable to the government through internal reviews and oversight by parliament. It said its interactions with reporters should be closely monitored.
Also Friday, militants assaulted a police station in the northwestern city of Peshawar, shooting dead three officers and wounding nine others, said police officer Saeed Khan.
The Pakistani Taliban have carried out hundreds of attacks on the country's army and other security forces since 2007. The attack came a day after militants armed with guns and grenades killed four Pakistani soldiers in an ambush in the South Waziristan tribal area.