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Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan President, Hospitalized Amid Resignation Rumors

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ASIF ALI ZARDARI HOSPITALIZED
Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari meets with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, Jan. 14, 2011. (AP) | AP

ISLAMABAD — President Asif Ali Zardari was having tests related to a heart condition in a Dubai hospital Wednesday but is expected to return to Pakistan within days, officials said, denying rumors that the embattled and unpopular leader may be stepping down.

Some reports said Zardari, who in September underwent medical tests for a cardiac condition in Britain, may have suffered a mild heart attack. Those were also denied by officials, some of whom suggested the rumors were being spread by political enemies of Zardari seeking to create crisis-like conditions that could help in moves to topple him.

Dr. Asim Hussain, a government minister and close aide to Zardari, said the president was being kept in the intensive care unit of the hospital not because his condition required it, "but to keep him away from frequent visitors if he had been kept in a normal room."

"He will be discharged from hospital and come back to the country in at the most three to four days," he told a local television station from Dubai, where he was with the president. "All his tests are normal, but still there are more to be carried out, which may take another 48 hours."

In London, Pakistan's High Commissioner to Britain, Wajid Shamsul Hasan said Zardari, 56, had felt pain in his arm for days during recent meetings. He also said that doctors in the UAE confirmed Zardari has a heart condition, known as angina.

"Whatever the case, he has no immediate plans to step down," Hasan said.

News that he had traveled to Dubai provoked speculation in Pakistan's febrile media and political world that Zardari may use ill health as a pretext for stepping down under pressure from the country's powerful military.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. understood Zardari's travel was linked to a heart condition, and wished him a speedy recovery. Asked about speculation it could be linked to a military takeover, he told reporters, "Our belief is that it's completely health-related."

An article published Tuesday on the website of Foreign Policy magazine appeared to be the main source of the rumor that was spread via Twitter and Pakistani television news channels.

The president has been under fresh pressure recently since the Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., a key ally, was forced to resign amid allegations he sent a memo to Washington asking for its help in reining in the military. Military coups, and rumors of them, have long been a regular feature of political life in Pakistan.

Zardari, a canny political operator with many enemies in the media and political elite, has survived several predictions of his downfall since he became president in 2008.

The Foreign Policy magazine quoted an unnamed former U.S. government official as saying Zardari was "incoherent" when he spoke with President Barack Obama by telephone over the weekend. Parts of the U.S. government were informed that Zardari had a "minor heart attack" on Monday night and may resign on account of "ill health" amid the uproar over the memo scandal, said the official.

"All these reports are untrue, imaginary and speculative," said his spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, adding the president's condition was "not serious, not dangerous" and he would return to Pakistan soon.

Zardari traveled to Dubai on Tuesday following symptoms "related to his pre-existing heart condition" after his children insisted he do so, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's office said in a statement. The statement said Zardari was "stable" and would "remain under observation and return to resume his normal functions as advised by the doctors."

In September, Zardari underwent an angiography – a medical imaging technique used to visualize the blood vessels of the heart – and some routine medical tests at London's Royal Brompton Hospital and was reported to have received a clean bill of health.

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Dodds reported from London. AP writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.

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