A Pakistani leader on Friday issued what he said was a final appeal to Taliban militants to retreat to their Swat Valley stronghold and salvage a peace deal sharply criticized by the United States.
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, or Sharia, across the country, and the Swat Taliban have used it to justify a push into the adjoining Buner district, bringing them to within about 60 miles (100 kilometers) of the capital. The embattled government of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province on Friday convened a meeting with heads of ruling and opposition parties to decide how to respond.
"Those who took 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, torched 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 on Thursday 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 neighboring district, Shangla. Militants have made no secret of their desire to see Islamic law imposed across the country, and unease about the peace deal is growing in Pakistan and in the West.
The U.S. considers rooting out militant sanctuaries in Pakistan as critical to success in the Afghan war. At the same time, it also worries about the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday that Pakistan's leaders were "basically abdicating to the Taliban." On Thursday, however, she said Islamabad appeared increasingly aware of the threat.
Clinton told U.S. lawmakers the Obama administration is working to convince Islamabad that its traditional focus on India as a threat has to shift to Islamic extremists.
"Changing paradigms and mindsets is not easy, but I do believe there is an increasing awareness of not just the Pakistani government but the Pakistani people that this insurgency coming closer and closer to major cities does pose such a threat," she said.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani insisted no group would be allowed to challenge the authority of the government and a few lawmakers _ including some who initially backed the peace deal with the Swat Taliban - said the administration had to do more to contain extremists.
"If the other party is not able to give us peace and expanding themselves to Buner and Shangla, then it is the government's duty to use its full strength to stop their expansion," said Haji Mohammad Adeel, another leader of the ruling party in the northwest which negotiated the peace deal in the first place.
The accord covers Swat, Buner, Shangla and other districts in the Malakand Division, an area of about 10,000 square miles (25,900 square kilometers) 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 - a theory yet to be seriously tested.