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Pakistani Taliban withdraws from key valley

A Pakistani Taliban commander withdrew his fighters from a key north-western valley today, 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 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 neighbouring 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.

Fazlullah's aide Mehmood Khan said the militants were returning to Swat, and witnesses saw them leaving Buner in the early evening.

It was unclear whether the Taliban's 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-Qa'ida would be given refuge in lands under Taliban control.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Pakistan's policies in Swat abdicated authority to the Taliban, while Defence Secretary Robert Gates urged Pakistani leaders to act against foes who posed an "existential threat" to the state.

The United States and other Western allies need Pakistan's help to defeat al-Qa'ida and stabilise neighbouring Afghanistan.

Earlier this month parliament forced a reluctant President Asif Ali Zardari to sign a regulation to introduce sharia, Islamic law, in Swat valley in order to pacify the Taliban.

Emboldened by the government's readiness to appease them, the Taliban moved into Buner from Swat, triggering alarm over their proximity to Islamabad.

Hitherto, the government has appeared reluctant to sanction the use of force in Swat, but 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 north-west by a Taliban menace that is now 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 from the militants.

"The country's defence is in strong hands and our nuclear programme is in safe hands," he said.