A Pakistani Taliban commander has ordered his men to withdraw from Buner district, a spokesman said yesterday, amid mounting alarm in the US over the Taliban advance toward the capital of the nuclear-armed Muslim state.
Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said there were around 100 fighters in Buner, a valley just 100km from Islamabad and less than five hours drive from the capital.
“Our leader has ordered that Taliban should immediately be called back from Buner,” Khan said.
Khan belongs to a faction led by Fazlullah, the Taliban commander in neighboring Swat valley, where the government has caved in to militants’ demands for the imposition of Islamic law.
He said government and Taliban representatives were en route to Buner, along with Maulana Sufi Mohammad, a radical Muslim cleric who brokered the Swat deal, to deliver a message to fighters to vacate the district.
Khan was quoted in the past week as saying al-Qaeda would be given refuge in lands under Taliban control.
US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said Pakistan’s policies in Swat abdicated authority to the Taliban, while US Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged Pakistani leaders to act against foes who posed an “existential threat” to the state.
Earlier this month parliament forced a reluctant Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to sign a regulation to introduce Shariah, 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 more than a week ago, triggering alarm over their proximity to Islamabad.
The government and opposition have been reluctant to sanction the use of force in Swat, giving rise to doubts about the army’s capacity and will to take on the Taliban.
“We will react if the writ of the government is challenged,” Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told parliament, challenging legislators to show “moral courage” to stop the Taliban.
Gilani also rebuffed concern that the militants posed a risk to the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
“The country’s defense is in strong hands and our nuclear program is in safe hands,” he said.
The military is confronted across the northwest by a Taliban menace that is now threatening to spread into Punjab Province and the heart of the country.