- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 25, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | The Taliban on Friday started withdrawing from Buner, a district close to the troubled Swat Valley and about 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad, as Pakistan’s top political and military leadership warned of a possible military operation in the region.

The top administrator in the region said the Taliban began withdrawing after successful talks between the district administration and Maulana Sufi Muhammad, the cleric who negotiated a deal with the government for enforcement of an Islamic legal system in the Malakand region.

Swat and Buner both are within the vast Malakand region.

Militants have been in control of Swat for the past few years. However, earlier this month they moved into the neighboring Buner district, getting ever closer to Islamabad and triggering concerns in Washington.

“Taliban’s pullout has been started from Buner and the district is being cleared of unwanted elements,” Syed Muhammad Javed, the commissioner of Malakand, told the state media. Residents reported seeing several armed Taliban militants leave on pickup trucks.

Mr. Javed said the Taliban has also agreed to end armed patrolling across Malakand.

A local journalist told The Washington Times by phone that the whole of Buner was not yet cleared of militants.

“Taliban have started withdrawal from Buner. Pullout is still in process. They have vacated almost all the major towns. So far almost 30 percent militants have pulled out and the process is going on,” said the journalist, who did not want to be identified for security reasons.

Local sources said militants who are residents of Buner will stay, but have agreed to stop armed patrolling.

Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan confirmed that militants had started pulling out from Buner and heading back toward Swat.

Mr. Khan said the Taliban fighters were leaving Buner of their own accord and rejected the impression they were being pressured into withdrawal.

As the Taliban began to take control of Buner last week, the government responded by sending in paramilitary forces to protect government offices. On Thursday, Taliban fighters attacked the paramilitary troops, killing one police officer escorting them.

The Taliban advance caused alarm in Washington, where Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, said Islamabad was “abdicating” to the Taliban and extremists.

The expansion of the Taliban has put the Pakistani government in an embarrassing situation, raising questions on the state’s ability to establish its authority. Political and military leaders on Friday tried to reassure Pakistanis and the world of the government’s ability to keep the country secure.

Government and military officials began seriously considering another military operation against militants, who are constantly expanding their area of control, Their latest advance came despite a peace deal and the government’s decision in February to allow the use of Islamic Shariah law in the vast Malakand region of northwest Pakistan as a concession to persuade the Taliban to lay down its arms.

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