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Pakistani Taliban Withdraw from Key Northwestern District

Pakistani Taliban fighters have begun withdrawing from a key northwestern district, where the government deployed extra forces to stop the militants from advancing closer to the capital, Islamabad.

A top administrator in the region, Syed Mohammed Javed, said Taliban militants are pulling out of Buner district and returning to their stronghold in the nearby Swat Valley.

Emergency meeting held

Pakistan's Army chief General Ashfaq Kiyani held an emergency meeting Friday with commanders in the region to discuss a military operation in Buner and Swat.

Later, General Kiyani released a statement, saying the army "will not allow the militants to dictate terms to the government, or impose their way of life on the civil society of Pakistan."

He also said the pause in military operations that followed a recent peace deal with the Taliban in the region is "not a concession to the militants."

Hundreds of paramilitary troops were deployed to Buner after Taliban militants began setting up checkpoints in the district, less than 100 kilometers from Islamabad.

Peace deal includes Sharia

The peace deal between the government and hard-line cleric Sufi Mohammed allows the imposition of Islamic law (Sharia) in parts of Malakand division, including Swat Valley. In exchange, militants agreed to lay down their weapons. That has not happened yet.

This week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused the Pakistani government of ceding more territory to the Taliban. She described the situation as a "mortal threat" to the United States and the world. Taliban militants from Pakistan's Swat valley have begun leaving Buner, the district some 100 kilometers from the capital that they took over last week. The pull-back follows vows from political and military leaders to take action if militants continue to challenge the government's authority.

Locals in Buner say fighters wearing black masks and turbans began leaving earlier on Friday, shortly after provincial officials met with mediator Sufi Muhammad and Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan.

Pakistani officials deployed hundreds of paramilitary troops to the region on Wednesday. One police officer was killed during that deployment in a clash with militants.

Speaking to VOA by phone from Buner, Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said the Swat Taliban fighters were leaving because they worried that staying could jeopardize the peace agreement.

He said, "I am sitting here with Sufi Muhammad and we have asked the Taliban to leave." He says soon they will return to Swat.

Witness says Taliban leaving area

At a Buner village on the border with Swat, resident Muhammad Amin told VOA that he watched dozens of fighters hitching rides on outbound vehicles.

He says following Sufi Muhammad's order, the Taliban have abandoned houses and other areas they had taken over earlier. He says they are also leaving the Pir Baba shrine and residents there are excited.

When militants entered Buner last week, they took over the popular shrine to the Sufi Saint and barred visitors.

Taliban from Buner are not leaving the region, although they are barred from brandishing weapons and patrolling the streets. Residents said local militants had largely disappeared from public view on Friday.

Sufi Muhammad, militant leaders and provincial officials have been negotiating for days over Taliban demands that the government move more quickly in establishing Islamic courts in the northwest Malakand region.

The legal authority of the courts remains in dispute, with the Taliban insisting judges operate independently from Pakistan's justice system. Political leaders have said that demand is unacceptable.

Weapons ban

Taliban militants also have not followed through on their pledge to disarm.

On Friday, the information minister for the Northwest provincial government urged militants to surrender their weapons and withdraw from places they have occupied since the courts agreement.

Mian Iftikhar said provincial officials, while supportive of the Islamic courts, also recognize the government's authority in the region.

He says it is unanimously agreed that the government is constitutionally liable to secure the peace and safety of the people - and the government will fulfill this responsibility.

Obama administration concerned about Taliban advances

U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have expressed extreme concern about the latest Taliban advances and the government's policy of ceding territory to them. On Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he hoped there would be an increasing recognition among local leaders that the Taliban are an existential threat to Pakistan.

Pakistan's army fought a violent and unsuccessful campaign against the Swat Taliban last year. In February, with the two sides effectively stalemated, provincial officials negotiated the current peace agreement for Islamic courts. Since then, the military has been largely silent about the situation.

But on Friday, the military released a statement from Army Chief Ashfaq Kayani that pushed back against the U.S. criticism over the situation.

General Kayani said the pause in military operations while the government negotiated a peace deal is aimed at trying to reconcile the two sides - and is not a concession to the militants. He said the military will not allow militants to dictate terms to the government or impose their way of life on Pakistanis.