Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan's president, has left the country for what was described as a one-day private visit to Dubai, officials have said, during a deepening crisis between the government and the powerful military.
The officials said the trip was unconnected to the prime minister's dismissal of the country's defence secretary on Wednesday, as the fallout from a scandal centered on a memo written to Washington asking for its help in reining in the generals widened.
Early last month, Zardari travelled to Dubai for medical treatment, triggering rumours that he was either being pushed out by the army or was fleeing a potential coup.
He returned after a few weeks, but tensions have continued to rise in the country, with critics predicting the government's imminent downfall.
Officials on Thursday said the president would attend a wedding in Dubai and would be back in Pakistan on Friday morning.
Yousuf Raza Gilani's sacking of retired Lieutenant-General Naeem Khalid earlier this week was seen as a rare public display of assertiveness by the civilian government against the army.
Gilani accused the defence secretary of "gross misconduct and illegal action which created misunderstanding" between state institutions.
The so-called memogate scandal broke three months ago when Mansoor Ijaz, a US businessman of Pakistani origin, writing in a column in the UK's Financial Times, said a memo had allegedly been sent in May, on behalf of Zardari, to Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time.
As Zardari left the country, military chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani held talks with top commanders, fuelling speculation about the army's next move in the political crisis.
Most analysts say Kayani does not want a coup because the army is currenty engaged in taking on fighters in tribal areas, while the country's economic situation is perilous.
But they say the generals may be happy to allow a Supreme Court, widely seen as hostile to the government, to dismiss Zardari if it can find a "constitutional" way to do so.
The court, regarded as an ally of the army, is investigating the "memogate" affair and a second one linked to past corruption cases against the president.
Both could potentially be used as a pretext to oust the current civilian leadership, which is showing no signs of bending.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on Thursday, Tariq Pirzada, a Pakistani political columnist, said: "The political government in Islamabad, led by President Zardari, has become totally destabilised and they have lost all the credibility in the country".
He said the president's conflict with the judiciary, as well as current tensions between the civil and military leadership, could send a negative message to the outside world.
"It is very damaging in the sense that the outside world is getting the message that the country is totally polarised from within, that there's a threat - the perception - that the army may take over," Pirzada said.
"Although it may not be the right perception but that is the perception going out."
Late on Thursday, a US missile strike killed four foreign fighters in North Waziristan, a region close to the Afghan border, Pakistani officials said. It was the second such strike in three days.
The US had put the drone programme on hold since late November, after US air strikes killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers close to the border, enraging Islamabad.
Also on Thursday, a group of fighters with guns and grenades ambushed Pakistani soldiers during a search operation in the town of Sararogha in South Waziristan, killing four of them, two intelligence officials said.
The army has ruled Pakistan for much of its six-decade existence, and it still sees itself as the rightful custodian of the country's interests.
General elections are scheduled for next year, but could well take place sooner. No civilian Pakistani government has ever completed its term in office.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies