BUNER, Pakistan (Reuters) -- Thousands of people have rallied in Pakistan's Buner Valley to call on the government and the Taliban to avoid conflict as fears grew of an imminent military offensive in the northwest region.
The Taliban's creeping advance towards Islamabad -- Buner is just 100 kilometers northwest of the Pakistani capital -- has heightened concern in the United States about stability of its nuclear-armed Muslim ally.
U.S. officials want Pakistan to take a stand rather than cede more territory to militants through policies of appeasement like the decision earlier this month to introduce Islamic law in a large chunk of Northwest Frontier Province.
Emboldened after winning that concession, Taliban fighters moved into Buner from the neighboring Swat Valley, but their commander ordered some of them to withdraw on April 24, leaving behind only those fighters who hailed from Buner.
Western governments that need Pakistan's support to defeat Al-Qaeda and succeed in stabilizing Afghanistan, dread the idea of any threat to the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons.
"We can't even contemplate that," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in an interview with Fox News in Baghdad. "We cannot...let this go on any further. Which is why we're pushing so hard for the Pakistanis to come together around a strategy to take their country back."
Call For Restraint
People living on the frontline in Buner had another perspective.
They fear they will have to flee their homes if their valley becomes a battleground, and at a rally in Buner town called for the Taliban and government to show restraint.
"We appeal to the Taliban to stop shows of force and display of weapons, as there is no justification for it after enforcement of Nizam-e-Adl regulation," Mian Said Laiq, a politician, told the rally, referring to Shari'a, or Islamic law.
President Asif Ali Zardari last week reluctantly sanctioned the introduction of Shari'a in Malakand Division, which includes Swat and Buner, in the hope that it would help pacify the region.
On April 25, 12 children were killed
by a bomb hidden in a football in Lower Dir, part of Malakand Division, and Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik on April 26 blamed the Taliban.
"The Taliban have exposed their real face by killing innocent children," Malik said.
During the rally in Buner, cleric Misbahuddin Malikpuri warned the government against deploying security forces if the Taliban committed to keeping the peace.
"If government sent troops to Buner despite the Taliban's commitment not to disturb peace, then we will be with the Taliban," he added.
Pakistan's allies want to see a coherent, decisive action by Pakistan, and Zardari may want to show some steel before talks in Washington with President Barack Obama and his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai on May 6-7.
Pakistani officials say they are trying to use political means to reduce the violence, but there are growing signs that the government is preparing to unleash the military.