Taliban militants began pulling out of a recently seized district of north-western Pakistan on Friday.

The pull-out came after the government had warned that it would remove them by force.

Television pictures showed dozens of militants emerging from a high-walled villa that served as their headquarters in Buner, a rural area 60 miles from the capital Islamabad.

The men, most of them masked with black scarves and carrying automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, clambered into several lorries and minibuses before driving away.

Top regional government administrator Syed Mohammed Javed said that hardline clergyman Sufi Muhammad, who had helped mediate the disputed peace deal, persuaded the Taliban to return to Swat in a meeting on Friday.

‘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,’ he said.

Mr Javed said that he and Mr Muhammad were leading the Taliban back to the town of Mingora.

The government agreed in February to impose Islamic law in Swat and the surrounding areas of the north-west in return for a ceasefire that halted nearly two years of bloody fighting between the Taliban militants and Pakistani security forces.

But hardliners have seized on the concession to demand Sharia law across the country and the Swat Taliban have used it to justify a push into Buner, putting them within striking distance of the capital and key roads leading to the main north-western city of Peshawar.

Meanwhile, NATO secretary-general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has ruled out using alliance troops in Afghanistan for cross-border raids into Pakistan.

Mr de Hoop Scheffer said on Thursday that the mission of the 47,000-strong NATO force is strictly limited to Afghanistan, but he added that NATO was increasing military co-operation with Pakistan.

‘The mandate of our troops ends at the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan,’ he said.

Last year, the US gave its forces greater leeway to cross from outposts in Afghanistan into the area along the Pakistan border.

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