Taliban militants who had seized a district just 60 miles from Pakistan's capital began pulling out Friday after the government warned it would use force to evict them.
The withdrawal from Buner, if completed, eliminates the most immediate threat to a peace agreement in the neighboring militant-held Swat Valley that the U.S. government worries has created a haven for allies of al-Qaida.
But it is unlikely to quell fears that Islamabad is failing to deal forcefully with Islamist militants slowly expanding toward the heart of the nuclear-armed country from their strongholds along the Afghan border.
TV images showed dozens of militants emerging 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 trucks and minibuses before driving away.
A hard-line cleric who helped mediate the disputed peace deal persuaded the Taliban to return to Swat in Friday's meeting, said Syed Mohammed Javed, the top government administrator in the region.
"We told them that we have a deal, we have a peace agreement. We told them not to become a tool in the hands of someone aiming at sabotaging the peace in the region," Javed told The Associated Press by telephone from Buner.
Javed said he and the aging cleric, Sufi Muhammad, were leading the Taliban convoy back to Mingora, Swat's main town, but it was not clear when they would cross the mountain passes leading out of Buner.
The government agreed in February to impose Islamic law in Swat and surrounding areas of the northwest in return for a cease-fire that halted nearly two years of bloody fighting between militants and Pakistani security forces.
But hard-liners have seized on the concession to demand Islamic law across the country, and the Swat Taliban used it to justify their push into Buner, putting them within striking distance of the capital and key roads leading to the main northwestern city of Peshawar.
Taliban commanders insisted their fighters had been preaching peacefully for Islamic law, or Sharia, in Buner and their spokesman said they were leaving "of their own accord, not under any pressure."
'Closer to tipping point'
President Barack Obama's administration, which views the elimination of militant sanctuaries in Pakistan critical to success in the Afghan war and to preventing another Sept. 11-style terrorist strike on the United States, has expressed dismay.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview broadcast Friday that the Buner episode had brought Pakistan "closer to the tipping point" where it could be overtaken by Islamic extremists.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in the region, told the U.S. Congress on Friday that extremists already inside Pakistan pose the greatest threat to that country, and that longtime rival India should no longer be Pakistan's top military focus.
With the pressure mounting, the Pakistani army, whose ability and commitment to combating Islamist extremists is under intense international scrutiny, issued an unusually tough statement Friday.
Apparently referring to the Swat deal, army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani said the current pause in military operations was "meant to give the reconciliatory forces a chance (but) must not be taken for a concession to the militants."
Kayani said the army was "determined to root out the menace of terrorism" and would "not allow the militants to dictate terms to the government or impose their way of life."
The Taliban pulled back from Buner before that resolve was put to the test.
With police hunkered down in their barracks, provincial authorities on Wednesday sent a few hundred lightly armed paramilitary troops to protect government buildings.
But they were halted shortly after crossing the district border by gunfire that killed a police officer, prompting a string of statements from politicians warning that they could scupper the peace agreement.
'A tactical retreat'
Ikram Sehgal, a Pakistani military analyst, said that while the attempt to insert the paramilitaries was a "fiasco," the Taliban likely feared that a full-blown army operation might follow.
"Buner is basically a one-road valley that would have been easy to seal. It was a tactical retreat," Sehgal said.
He said recent statements by Sufi Muhammad denouncing democracy had opened the eyes of ordinary Pakistanis as well as its generals to the real nature of the militants, who have beheaded opponents, torched girls schools and recently offered protection to al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.
The peace accord covers Swat, Buner 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. But critics say it hands immunity to criminals and note that the militants have rejected calls for them to give up their arms.