Pakistan warns Taliban forces to back off

A Pakistani leader issued a "final" appeal to Taliban militants to retreat to their Swat Valley stronghold today and salvage a peace deal that has been roundly criticised in the West.

The government agreed in February to impose Islamic law in Swat and surrounding areas in return for a cease-fire that halted nearly two years of fighting between militants and Pakistani security forces.

But hard-liners have used it to demand Islamic law, or Sharia, across the country, and to justify a push into the adjoining Buner district, bringing them to within about 60 miles of Islamabad.

The embattled government of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province today met heads of ruling and opposition parties to decide how to respond.

"Those who took up 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."

Government leaders have warned that they will use force if the militants - who have beheaded opponents, burned girls schools and denounced democracy as un-Islamic - continue to challenge the Pakistani state.

But they have also sought to counter a rising tide of extremist violence with dialogue and peace deals that critics worry only grant brutal extremists impunity, legitimacy and the time and space to muster more forces.

In a sign of the rising tension, gunmen yesterday attacked paramilitary troops sent to Buner to protect government offices, killing a police officer escorting the force.

A subsequent meeting between Taliban representatives and tribal elders in Buner ended with the militants making some concessions but no pledge to withdraw. There were reports that fighters from Swat had also entered another neighbouring district, Shangla.

Unease about the peace deal is growing in Pakistan and in the West. The US considers rooting out militant sanctuaries in Pakistan as critical to success in the Afghan war. It also worries about the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said Pakistan's leaders were "basically abdicating to the Taliban."

She said the Obama administration was working to convince Islamabad that its traditional focus on India as a threat has to shift to Islamic extremists.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said today that peace agreements were an important tool but warned that the government would "react" if militants continue to challenge it.

He said the army - Pakistan's most powerful institution - was ready to take any action requested by the authorities.

"The defence of the country is in strong hands. I want to say that our nuclear program is also in safe hands," Mr Gilani told Parliament.

The disputed peace accord covers Swat, Buner, Shangla and other districts in the Malakand Division, an area of about 10,000 square miles near the Afghan border and the tribal areas where al-Qaida and the Taliban have strongholds.

Supporters have said the deal takes away the militants' main rallying call for Islamic law and will let the government gradually reassert control an approach yet to be seriously tested.

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