POLITICS
12/07/2011 08:15 EST | Updated 02/06/2012 05:12 EST

Pakistan president travels to Dubai for medical tests, triggering rumours of political downfall

ISLAMABAD - Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari travelled to Dubai for medical tests on his heart after falling ill, officials and associates said Wednesday, triggering Twitter-fueled rumours that the embattled leader may be stepping down.

The president's spokesman denied the speculation, which centred on the idea Zardari may use ill health as a pretext for stepping down under pressure from the country's powerful military.

"All these reports are untrue, imaginary and speculative," Farhatullah Babar told The Associated Press.

Zardari travelled to Dubai on Tuesday for routine tests "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."

Zardari travelled to London in September to undergo an angiography and was reportedly given a clean bill of health.

Close associates of the president said he is currently "unwell," but did not provide specifics. His condition did not appear to be life-threatening, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Babar, the president's spokesman, echoed this diagnosis, saying "it is not serious, not dangerous." The president will return to Pakistan soon, he said.

Sharmeela Farooqi, a spokeswoman for Zardari's party, denied reports saying Zardari had suffered a heart attack.

Zardari, fiercely disliked by many in the media and Pakistan's political world, has been under pressure since the Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. was forced to resign after allegations he sent a memo to Washington asking for its help in reigning in the powerful military.

An article published Tuesday on the website of Foreign Policy magazine appeared to be the source of the speculation.

It 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.

Twitter users then spread the story, and it was picked up by Pakistan's ratings-hungry television channels. Zardari, a canny political operator, has survived many predictions of his downfall since he became president in 2008.