BUNER, Pakistan (Reuters) - A Pakistani Taliban commander withdrew his fighters from a key northwestern valley on Friday, amid growing alarm in the United States that the Taliban were creeping closer to the capital of nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Fears for Pakistan’s stability have heightened in the past week after the Taliban took control of Buner, a valley just 100 km (60 miles) and less than five hours drive from Islamabad.
The order for the Taliban’s retreat from Buner was given by Fazlullah, the Taliban commander in neighboring Swat valley, where the government has already caved in to militants’ demands for the imposition of Islamic law.
“Our leader has ordered that Taliban should immediately be called back from Buner,” Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan told Reuters. He said there were only around 100 fighters in Buner.
Government and Taliban representatives went to Buner, along with Maulana Sufi Mohammad, a radical Muslim cleric who brokered the Swat deal, to tell the fighters to vacate the district.
Mehmood Khan, an aide to Fazlullah, said the militants were returning to Swat, and witnesses saw them leaving Buner in the early evening.
It was unclear whether the withdrawal was in response to a carrot or a stick, and worries abound over whether Pakistan lacks the capacity and intent to fight militancy.
Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani issued a statement aimed at dispelling those doubts and calming a mounting sense of crisis.
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,” the statement quoted Kayani as saying.
Kayani’s comments, issued after meeting with his commanders, reinforced expectations of an imminent offensive in Swat, analysts said.
The Taliban spokesman was quoted in the past week as saying al Qaeda would be given refuge in lands under Taliban control.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Pakistan’s policies in Swat abdicated authority to the Taliban, while Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged Pakistani leaders to act against foes who posed an “existential threat” to the state.
Pakistan’s top diplomat in Britain said Clinton was “rather overstretching the issue,” adding there was no question of giving in to the militants.
“We will not allow Pakistani territory to be abdicated to anybody. We will fight for every inch...,” Wajid Shamsul Hasan, Pakistan’s High Commissioner in London, told Reuters.
He said his personal view was that U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan for fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, which broadens the focus to Pakistan, was the “wrong strategy.”
“Pakistan is a semi-developed country and Afghanistan is not at all developed. They have never had any rule of law in their country. You can’t club the two countries (together),” he said.
The United States and other Western allies need Pakistan’s help to defeat al Qaeda and stabilize neighboring Afghanistan.
Germany said the Taliban were still far from the capital and cautioned against getting carried away. Nevertheless, the advance was “worrying,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Andreas Peschke said.
Earlier this month the Pakistani parliament forced a reluctant President Asif Ali Zardari to sign a regulation to introduce Islamic sharia law in Swat to pacify the Taliban.
Emboldened, the Taliban moved into Buner from Swat, triggering alarm over their proximity to Islamabad.
News of the Taliban withdrawal from Buner helped extend a rally in the Pakistani share market, which bounced 4 percent on Friday after three days of sharp declines. [nSIN430422] Hitherto, the government has appeared reluctant to sanction the use of force in Swat, but army chief Kayani said the “operational pause, meant to give the reconciliatory forces a chance,” should not be interpreted as a concession to the militants.
The military is confronted across the northwest by a Taliban presence that is threatening to spread into Punjab province and the heart of the country.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani asked parliament to show “moral courage” to stop the Taliban, while rebuffing concerns that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons were at risk.
“The country’s defense is in strong hands and our nuclear program is in safe hands,” he said.
Meanwhile, Taliban militants were seen in another northwestern district of Shangla, manning checkpoints they had set up near Shahkot and Purn villages, according to intelligence officials.
Shangla, east of Swat and linked to Buner through a mountain pass, was the scene of fierce fighting between militants and security forces when the Pakistani military launched an offensive in late 2007 against militants loyal to Fazlullah.
Reporting by Junaid Khan in Swat, Abdul Rehman in Buner, Faris Ali in Peshawar and Augustine Anthony in Islamabad and Adrian Croft in London; Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Dean Yates