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Flux In Pakistani Valley After Taliban Retreat

Taliban fighters in Buner district on April 24
BUNER, Pakistan (Reuters) -- Security in a Pakistani valley was in flux on Saturday, after Taliban fighters quit their main base, but officials said remnants of the militant force were still roaming around the northwestern district of Buner.

"They have gone, but left their germs here," Abdul Rasheed Khan, the district's top police officer, told Reuters. "Now we have about 200 local Taliban who can be seen on roadsides."

The Taliban's entry into Buner, some 100 kilometers northwest of Islamabad, alarmed Washington during the past week, as fears mounted over the nuclear-armed Muslim state's stability.

On April 24, guerrilla commander Maulana Fazlullah, ordered his men to pull back to the neighboring Swat valley, and his spokesman said around 100 fighters were being withdrawn.

Residents saw Taliban fighters abandoning their main base at Sultan Was village in the Buner valley.

But while militants from Swat had returned home, armed fighters who hailed from Buner were seen moving around as usual, despite hundreds of police militia being sent to the district.

"They won't lay their arms so quickly. They know they have developed enmities with residents whose relatives were killed."
"They won't lay their arms so quickly," said Syed Javed Shah, a senior government official in Buner. "They know they have developed enmities with residents whose relatives were killed."

Fazlullah, the Taliban leader in Swat, had forced the government to submit to demands for the imposition of Islamic Shari'a law across the Malakand Division of Northwest Frontier Province, which includes Swat and Buner.

While the order for the introduction of Shari'a in Swat was promulgated by parliament and a reluctant President Asif Ali Zardari earlier this month it has still to be implemented.

Deal Breaker?

Pakistani officials say the the militants' move into Buner from Swat violated terms of a deal meant to keep the peace.

"We are ready for an operation, because they have undermined the treaty, they have gone back on their word to disarm, they are not moving out of Buner," a senior security official told Reuters late on April 24.

He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of an issue that the year-old civilian government is expected to take a lead on.

"In the end, it's the prerogative of the provincial government to order us," the official said, putting the onus on the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) government, led by a party that is a partner in the national coalition.

The appearance of militants from Swat in the adjoining Shangla district during the past few days will add to the pressure for action.

Senior U.S. officials have strongly criticized Pakistan's appeasement of militants in Swat, but U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke sought to set misgivings to one side in an interview broadcast by Pakistan's Geo News channel late on April 24.

"There isn't tension between us and Pakistan; we have a common objective," Holbrooke said, adding that he had canvassed tirelessly for international aid for cash-strapped Pakistan.

Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani issued a strongly worded statement the same day to to dispel doubts about the military's capacity and will to fight the militants.

Troubling Signs

After nearly a decade under General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's civilian leaders have taken over an increasingly unstable country.

The International Monetary Fund had to save it from an economic meltdown in November. Peace talks with India were suspended after Pakistani militants attacked Mumbai that month.

Overall insecurity has worsened with high-profile attacks in Islamabad and Lahore, the capital of Punjab province.

The Taliban has extended its reach across the northwest, though the military has contained militant activity in the Waziristan tribal region and defeated them in Bajaur, the other tribal region regarded as a militant hot spot.

After a late-night meeting on April 24 between Zardari, General Kayani, senior ministers, and the leader of the party running NWFP, the president's spokesman issued a statement.

"The government will neither compromise on enforcing writ of the state, nor allow the militants and non-state actors to establish their own parallel authority in any part of the country through use of force," spokesman Farhatullah Babar said.

Western governments, worried that Pakistan is sliding into chaos, want to see coherence and action, and Zardari may want to show some steel before talks in Washington with President Barack Obama and Afghan couterpart Hamid Karzai on May 6-7.