pakistani-taliban-cp-660865

Taliban militants began pulling out of a recently seized Buner district in northwestern Pakistan on Friday. ((Naveed Ali/Associated Press))

A Pakistani official says Taliban militants have completed their pullback from a northwestern district they seized earlier this month.

Syed Mohammad Javed, a senior official for Pakistan's Swat Valley and surrounding areas, also said Saturday in Peshawar that paramilitary troops have deployed across the Buner district vacated by the militants.

Taliban gunmen began withdrawing from Buner into Swat on Friday after the government warned that it would force them out.

The militant advance had raised concern that Islamist extremists were spreading toward major cities including the capital, Islamabad, and that a peace deal in Swat had emboldened hard-liners.

Word of the withdrawal came following a meeting of heads of ruling and opposition parties in the North West Frontier Province.

"Those who took arms must lay them down. Those who went to Buner, they must get out from Buner," Iftikhar Hussain, provincial government spokesman and a leader of the ruling Awami National Party, said before the meeting. "This is the only way, and we are asking them for the last time."

Sufi Muhammad, an Islamic cleric who previously mediated a peace agreement between the government and the militants, helped persuade the Taliban to withdraw, Javed said.

TV images showed dozens of militants emerging on Friday from a high-walled villa that served as their headquarters in Buner, a rural area in the foothills of the Karakoram mountains. The men, most of them masked with black scarves and carrying automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, clambered into several pickup trucks and minibuses before driving away.

Tactical retreat

Ikram Sehgal, a Pakistani military analyst, said the Taliban likely feared that a full-blown army operation might follow after Pakistan's army sent paramilitary troops into Buner on Thursday to protect public buildings and roads

"Buner is basically a one-road valley that would have been easy to seal. It was a tactical retreat," Sehgal said.

The withdrawal from Buner will eliminate the most immediate threat to a peace agreement in the neighbouring militant-held Swat Valley that the U.S. government worries has created a haven for allies of al-Qaeda. But it is unlikely to quell fears that Islamabad is failing to deal forcefully with Islamist militants slowly expanding into the heart of the nuclear-armed country from lawless areas close to the Afghan border.

According to local officials, the Taliban had established a base in the village of Sultanwas in the northwestern region and set up positions in the nearby hills.

Taliban representatives met with tribal elders on Thursday but though the talks ended with the militants making some concessions there was no pledge to withdraw.

The Taliban seized control of the valley, once an alpine resort, in a violent uprising in 2007 that pushed tens of thousands of residents from the area. Violence continued in the area until the Pakistani government agreed in February to a deal.

President Asif Ali Zardari signed a deal into law last week that allows Taliban militants who control the Swat in the northwest to impose Islamic law in exchange for a ceasefire.

Several area residents have voiced their support for the deal, saying it ends the violence that has scarred the area. But western governments have argued the deal paves the way for the establishment of a de facto base for Taliban militants.

U.S. officials had been in Pakistan on Thursday to discuss the situation with officials.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said Friday he was still "extremely concerned" by the situation in Buner.

"We're certainly moving closer to the tipping point" where Pakistan could be overtaken by Islamic extremists, Mullen said.

With files from The Associated Press