AND ZULFIQAR ALI, NEW DELHI AND PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN — After a fitful day of meetings and government threats, a group of Pakistani Taliban fighters grabbed their guns Friday, jumped into their trucks and headed back toward the Swat Valley, relieving fears that they might continue on toward Islamabad, the capital of nuclear-armed Pakistan.
But residents of the Buner district, the object of the Taliban expansionary push, remained shaken, well aware of the militants' record in neighboring Swat of burning schools, beheading policemen and beating unmarried couples seen in public.
"I can't think of going back to Buner," given the security situation, said Afsar Khan, 40, a municipal council member, who has fled to Peshawar with his family.
Many residents worried that the departure was largely a charade. They said a limited number of militants made a big show of leaving but as many quietly stayed behind. Some officials reckoned that at least 300 Taliban fighters had arrived from Swat but only a few dozen appeared to have left.
Some experts also expressed doubt that the Taliban's action was anything but a tactical retreat that would give the militants an opportunity to regroup and expand their grip at a more opportune time.
Khan said he was injured in an attack this month, when militants detonated a bomb at a jirga, or community meeting, on how to counter the Taliban influx. Five people died, he said. Taliban militants followed up by attacking and occupying his family compound.
They also took over the gas station in Buner and sold more than 15,000 gallons of fuel, making off with the proceeds, he said.
A reporter working in Buner who asked not to be identified said residents had been extremely afraid in recent days, especially women threatened with violence if they left their homes. Schools remained open and girls were attending, he said, but almost all female students wore veils.
FM radio stations were under Taliban control and were broadcasting sermons and other religious programming.
The Taliban's rapid expansion into Buner has shocked many in Pakistan and around the world because the district is just 60 miles from Islamabad.
The unabashed power grab has come as President Asif Ali Zardari allowed the militants to impose Sharia, or Islamic law, in the Swat Valley in exchange for a truce, raising fears that they were becoming unstoppable.
The Taliban's influence in Pakistan had been largely confined to tribal areas near the Afghan border, far from the concern of many urban, middle-class Pakistanis.
Taliban leaders said Friday that they'd ordered fighters from Swat to head back home. "But local Taliban in Buner will remain," spokesman Muslim Khan told reporters in Buner.
"I am a guarantor of peace in [the] region," regional Taliban leader Maulana Sufi Muhammad added, after meeting with fellow Taliban leaders. "The outsiders from other districts should leave the area as it is a threat to peace."
Pakistani television showed several Taliban militants leaving Buner in pickups, brandishing automatic weapons. Some waved to people who gathered to see them off.
A key factor in the Taliban's retreat appeared to be threats by the central and provincial governments to send in troops. Officials also threatened to tear up the Sharia deal in Swat if the Taliban didn't live up to its end of the bargain.
Critics of the truce, which gives the militants de facto control over a large area, say it amounts to appeasement that makes the hard-liners stronger.
Taliban commander Mufti Aftab said Friday that the fighters' only purpose in "visiting" Buner was to preach peacefully. "We do not want to see Buner destroyed by security forces," he said.
Various arms of the government issued strong statements Friday suggesting broad-based resolve on an issue that usually eludes a consensus.
President Zardari, under growing domestic and international pressure, said in a statement that the government was committed to fighting militancy and wouldn't succumb to threats. But he said that dialogue was also an option for those who put down their weapons and don't challenge the government. In another statement later in the day, after a top-level meeting, the reference to dialogue was dropped.
The Pakistani army, ill-equipped and generally uncomfortable fighting insurgents, also chimed in.
"The army is determined to root out the menace of terrorism from society," said military chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani. "It will not allow the militants to dictate terms to the government or impose their way of life on Pakistani civilian society."
The army may have helped create the problem in Swat, however, by taking on Taliban militants halfheartedly in 2007 and then retreating, apparently emboldening them. Members of Pakistan's security services reportedly maintain close ties with militant groups, some of which they helped create.
"We have the sixth-largest army in the world," opposition lawmaker and columnist Ayaz Amir said Friday. "It's time the military at least ensures our internal security."