ISLAMABAD (Pakistan) • Under pressure from Pakistan's military, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has ousted two of his top officials in a continuing stand-off over leaks to the news media of a meeting in which civilian leaders confronted the military over its alleged reluctance to halt Islamist groups in the country.
Saturday's dismissals were the latest chapter in a showdown over a news story published in October that has infuriated the military. In the article, unnamed sources said government officials bluntly confronted the military over its lassitude in going after militants, saying that the country could be ostracised by the international community.
The removal of the two officials on Saturday, however, did not mollify the country's powerful army, and seemed to have the opposite effect. Major-General Asif Ghafoor, a military spokesman, said in a Twitter message that the army rejected Mr Sharif's effort and insisted he make public the results of an investigation into the leaks and put its recommendations into effect.
"The statement by the military will certainly intensify the standoff between the civilians and the military," said Mr Zahid Hussain, a leading political analyst.
Mr Syed Tariq Fatemi, a special adviser to Mr Sharif on foreign affairs and one of his top aides, was removed from his post, as was Mr Rao Tehseen Ali Khan, a senior official of the information ministry.
The controversy began last fall, when Dawn, the country's leading English daily newspaper, published a front-page article detailing an unprecedented confrontation between civilian and military leaders during a high-level meeting at the Prime Minister's house.
Mr Cyril Almeida, a well-known journalist, wrote that the civilian leaders had chided the head of the intelligence agency for failing to act against militants in the country.
The news story sparked a furore among powerful generals, who have never been held accountable for their actions. The military called the leak a breach of national security and urged strong, punitive action against those responsible for feeding the newspaper.
Soon after the article's publication, Mr Almeida was temporarily barred from leaving the country and Information Minister Pervez Rashid was removed from his post for failing to stop the publication.
The flare-up is the latest in a long history of Mr Sharif's troubles with the military. His last government was toppled in 1999 in a bloodless military coup.
The fact that Maj-Gen Ghafoor used the word "reject" in his Twitter message was widely criticised, especially on social media, as many wondered how a military official, technically a subordinate to a government leader, could so blatantly defy the country's Prime Minister.
"Such tweets are poisonous for the country's democracy," said Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan .
The military nonetheless stood by its statement. "The tweet represented the military's position," said a senior security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Military officials said the government had initially agreed to make public the results of its inquiry and agreed to stern action against those responsible for the leak.
But the government did not do so on Saturday, nor did it give any specifics on what role of Mr Fatemi and Mr Ali Khan might have played in the leaks in the Dawn article. Some have speculated that the investigation into the leaks implicates people close to Mr Sharif.
The increasing tension with the military complicates Mr Sharif's hold over power further as he faces an investigation into his family's offshore wealth.He has denied any wrongdoing, but faces mounting pressure to resign.