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Pakistan PM warns of coup plot

Pakistan's prime minister has claimed there is a conspiracy to oust the country's civilian government, a sign of growing tension with the army over a secret memo sent to Washington asking for help in averting a supposed military coup.

The conflict between the army and the government intensified this week after the Supreme Court began a hearing into the scandal, which has already forced Pakistan's ambassador to the US to resign and also threatens the president.

The political crisis comes as Pakistan is already facing a violent Taliban insurgency, a failing economy and severe tension with its most important ally, the US, over Nato air strikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November.

"Conspiracies are being hatched to pack up the elected government," Pakistani prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said during a speech in Islamabad.

The prime minister did not specifically blame the military but he later made clear in a speech to parliament that the army must operate under the control of the government. "They have to be answerable to this parliament," Mr Gilani said. "They cannot be a state within a state."

The army is considered the strongest institution in Pakistan and has ruled the country for much of its 64-year history after carrying out a series of military coups. Analysts have expressed doubt that a coup is likely at this time but the memo scandal has exacerbated already strained ties between the army and the government.

Mr Gilani's comments are a sharp turn for the prime minister. He rejected the notion of a stand-off between the army and the civilian leadership less than a week ago. Since then, the Supreme Court opened its hearing into the scandal and demanded a reply from President Asif Ali Zardari.

The government has questioned the need for the court hearing, saying parliament is already investigating the matter.

Mansoor Ijaz, a US businessman of Pakistani origin, has accused Pakistan's former ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, of crafting the memo sent to a senior US military official asking for help in averting a coup following the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May.

Mr Ijaz claimed Mr Haqqani acted with president Zardari's support. Both Mr Haqqani and the president have denied the allegations, but the envoy resigned in the wake of the scandal.

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