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Buner Pakistan: Taliban Militants Move To Expand Control Outside Swat Valley

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ISLAMABAD — Taliban militants have extended their grip in northwestern Pakistan, pushing out from a valley where the government has agreed to impose Islamic law and patrolling villages as close as 60 miles from the capital. Police and officials appear to have fled as armed militants also broadcast radio sermons and spread fear in Buner district, just 60 miles from Islamabad, officials and witnesses said Wednesday.

Pakistan's president signed off on the peace pact last week in hopes of calming Swat, where some two years of clashes between the Taliban and security forces have killed hundreds and displaced up to a third of the one-time tourist haven's 1.5 million residents.

Critics, including in Washington, have warned that the valley could become an officially sanctioned base for allies of al-Qaida _ and that it may be just the first domino in nuclear-armed Pakistan to fall to the Taliban.

"The activities in the Swat do concern us. We're keeping an eye on it, and are working daily with the Pakistan military," Maj. Gen. Michael S. Tucker told Pentagon reporters in a 35-minute videoconference call from Afghanistan.

Supporters of the deal say it will allow the government to gradually reassert control by taking away the militants' rallying cry for Islamic law. Many residents are grateful that a semblance of peace has returned. A handful of officials are back in Swat.

The agreement covers Swat 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.

The provincial government agreed to impose Islamic law in Malakand, and the Taliban agreed to a cease-fire that has largely held.

In recent days, the Swat militants have set their sights on Buner, a district just south of the valley, sparking at least one major clash with residents. The moves indicate the militants want to expand their presence beyond Swat to other parts of Malakand at the very least, under the guise of enforcing Islamic law.

Many in Buner are now too frightened to speak to reporters. However, a lawmaker from the area told The Associated Press that the militants had entered the district in "large numbers" and started setting up checkpoints at main roads and strategic positions.

"Local elders and clerics are negotiating with them to resolve this issue through talks," Istiqbal Khan said.

The militants in Buner also are using radio airwaves to broadcast sermons about Islam, and have occupied the homes of some prominent landowners, said a police official who insisted on anonymity because he was afraid of retaliation. He said the militants have also warned barbers to stop shaving men's beards and stores to stop selling music and movies.

The militants have established a major base in the village of Sultanwas and have set up positions in the nearby hills, the police official said. Militants also have taken over the shrine of a famed Sufi saint known as Pir Baba, he said.

The Taliban move into Buner left the Swat deal hanging from a thread, said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences.

"If the Taliban continue to expand in different directions and establish fiefdoms as they did in Swat, then probably the deal is not going to work and the government will be forced to scuttle that deal and go back to operations" by security forces, Rais said.

The provincial government's chief executive said authorities were prepared to use force if the Taliban didn't "pack up and go home" from Buner. But Haider Khan Hoti also pleaded for patience and rejected Western calls for a more aggressive approach.

U.S. missile attacks on militant targets in the northwest were undermining Pakistan's efforts to find a peaceful solution, he said.

"This is our country, we will have to look at our own priorities and our own interests," Hoti said. "We should not enter any friendship at the cost of our own destruction."

Since the provincial government agreed to the deal in February, Taliban fighters had adopted a lower profile and stopped openly displaying weapons in Swat as part of a cease-fire.

But on Tuesday, upon the radio-broadcast orders of Swat Taliban chief Maulana Fazlullah, the militants began roaming parts of the valley with rifles and other weapons. An AP reporter saw the patrols in Mingora, the valley's main city.

Residents from nearby towns in Swat said militants were setting up checkpoints on several roads. The residents requested anonymity out of fear for their lives.

Fazlullah ordered his fighters to withdraw again in a broadcast on Wednesday. He didn't explain why.

Swat Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan could not be reached for comment.

Khan said recently that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and other militants aiming to oust the U.S. from Afghanistan would be welcome and protected in Swat _ a statement the government condemned.

He also said the militants want to see all of Pakistan under Islamic law _ a cry echoed by several other Islamist firebrands.

Rais, the professor, said there was concern that Islamists may have concluded from the Swat deal that authorities will cave in to violent demands for Islamic law elsewhere.

"They have natural allies in the religious political parties in other parts of the country. They have social and religious networks that have support their suicide attacks and attacks against the security forces," Rais said.

"It is about the identity of Pakistan and the future direction that Pakistan can take."

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Associated Press writers Riaz Khan in Peshawar and Lara Jakes in Washington contributed to this report.

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