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Page last updated at 10:42 GMT, Friday, 24 April 2009 11:42 UK

Taleban announce key withdrawal

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Video broadcast on Pakistani TV purporting to show Taleban militants withdrawing from Buner

The Taleban say they are withdrawing from a Pakistani district where their consolidation of power this week has caused deep concern in the US.

A Taleban spokesman said commander Maulana Fazlullah had issued the order for fighters to pull back from Buner, just 100km (62 miles) from Islamabad.

The US has accused officials in Pakistan of abdicating to the Taleban.

The Taleban have agreed a peace deal bringing Sharia law to some districts in return for ending their insurgency.

The peace agreement covers six districts of Malakand division, including the troubled Swat region, in North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

The Taleban have almost full control of Swat and this week had strengthened operations in Buner.

Delegation

Taleban spokesman Muslim Khan said: "Our leader has ordered that Taleban should immediately be called back from Buner."

The move came after Maulana Fazlullah had met the commissioner of Malakand.

Taleban and officials meet in Buner on Thursday
The Taleban should be gone by Saturday, their spokesman said

Administration officials in NWFP have confirmed that Taleban fighters have started to leave.

A delegation from the Taleban and the cleric who negotiated the peace deal, Sufi Muhammad, is on its way to Buner to oversee the withdrawal.

Muslim Khan said the militants had just crossed from Swat into Buner as "a gesture of solidarity" with local comrades.

He said the Taleban would be gone by Saturday but denied that the militants were leaving due to pressure from the government or under any deal.

Those who went to Buner, they must get out from Buner
Iftikhar Hussain, NWFP spokesman

But the BBC's Syed Shoaib Hasan in Islamabad says circumstances suggest the militants are now under pressure and that a national consensus is building among the public and political parties that they must be challenged with force.

Pakistan's government has clearly stated that unless the Taleban lay down their arms, other options will be considered.

Pakistan's chief of army staff Gen Ashfaq Kayani rejected criticism of army inaction in Malakand.

"The operational pause, meant to give the reconciliatory forces a chance, must not be taken for a concession to the militants," he said.

Sympathy for the militant movement has been on the decline, our correspondent says, since the airing of footage showing a young girl being flogged as a punishment in Swat.

Although the Taleban denied ordering the punishment, their public standing has plummeted.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates warns of the Taleban threat to Pakistan

At least 10 more paramilitary platoons totalling about 200 men have now arrived in Buner to take control of government buildings.

The latest moves followed a meeting of government officials in North West Frontier Province to discuss the faltering peace deal.

Ahead of the meeting provincial spokesman Iftikhar Hussain had said: "Those who took arms must lay them down. Those who went to Buner, they must get out from Buner.

"This is the only way, and we are asking them for the last time."

The Taleban had been expected to lay down their arms under the peace deal and allow police and other officials to resume their duties.

However, the Taleban had further consolidated their hold on Buner.

On Wednesday they ambushed a paramilitary convoy at the border village of Totalai and prevented it from reaching Buner's central town of Dagar.

The US had expressed deep concern over the developments.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Pakistan posed a "mortal threat" to the world by abdicating to the Taleban.

On Thursday US Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned Pakistan that relations with the US would be threatened unless Islamabad combated the rise of the Taleban.

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