ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan's army chief denied accusations that the military is working to oust the country's civilian government amid tension over a secret memo sent to Washington earlier this year about an alleged coup, the military said Friday.
The memo scandal has heightened long-standing tensions between the army and the government at a time when the country is struggling to deal with a violent Taliban insurgency, a faltering economy and deteriorating relations with its most important ally, the United States.
Pakistani Taliban fighters attacked a paramilitary fort in northwestern Pakistan on Friday, killing one soldier and kidnapping 15 others, police said. The militants said in a statement issued after the attack that they would kill the abducted troops.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani claimed Thursday that there was a conspiracy under way to topple the government. He did not specifically point to the military, but said the army must be answerable to the parliament and cannot operate as a "state within a state."
Army chief Gen. Pervez Ashfaq Kayani denied the allegations and pledged the force would continue to support democracy in Pakistan.
"The army is fully cognizant of its constitutional obligations and responsibilities," Kayani said Thursday, during a trip near the Afghan border. His remarks were cited in an army statement Friday.
The army is the strongest institution in Pakistan and has ruled the country for much of its 64-year history after carrying out a series of coups. Analysts have expressed doubt that a coup is likely at this time, but have speculated the army may try to pressure the country's embattled president to resign over his alleged role in the memo scandal.
Pakistan's former ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani, has been accused of being behind the memo, which asked Washington to help avert a supposed coup in the wake of the unilateral American raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town in May. Haqqani allegedly acted with President Asif Ali Zardari's support.
Both Haqqani and the president have denied the allegations, but the envoy resigned in the wake of the scandal. Pressure on the government, especially Zardari, has increased this week as the Supreme Court opened a hearing into the memo.
Kayani said talk of a coup was "being used as a bogey to divert the focus from the real issues," a likely reference to the scandal. He said "issues of national security need to be considered on merit alone."
The political crisis could distract the army from its fight against the Pakistani Taliban, who aim to topple the government, partly because of the country's alliance with the U.S.
The nearly three dozen Pakistani Taliban fighters who attacked a paramilitary fort in Tank district with assault rifles before dawn Friday burned down buildings and captured a significant amount of weapons, said local police chief Ejaz Abid.
One soldier was killed and two were wounded in the fighting, Abid said. Another 15 are still missing and believed to have been kidnapped, he said.
Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan claimed responsibility for the attack in a phone call to The Associated Press and said it was carried out to avenge the death of a local Taliban commander. He claimed 30 soldiers were kidnapped.
But another Taliban commander who said he carried out the attack, Asmatullah Shaheen, told the AP that he had 15 soldiers in his custody. Some others managed to escape after the militants captured them, he said.
Abid, the police chief, said at least 22 soldiers were missing originally, but seven managed to return.
Shaheen said the militant commander being avenged, Taj Gul, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in October in South Waziristan, an important sanctuary for the Pakistani Taliban next to Tank.
The militants attacked the Pakistani soldiers in response because of the country's alliance with the U.S., he said.
Ehsan, the Taliban spokesman, said the militants have no intention of bargaining for the kidnapped soldiers' release and intend to kill them.
"We are going to cut these soldiers into pieces one by one, and we will send these pieces to their commanders," said Ehsan.
Associated Press writers Rasool Dawar in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan, contributed to this report. Follow Sebastian Abbot on Twitter: http://twitter.com/sebabbot