PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP) – Pakistan is to start withdrawing troops from a troubled northwestern district where Taliban insurgents shot schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai in the head, local officials said Sunday.
The army in 2009 sent 30,000 troops to battle Taliban fighters controlled by cleric Maulana Fazlullah, who since 2007 had taken control of the scenic Swat valley and waged a campaign of beheadings, other violence and attacks on girls' schools.
By July 2009 the army declared the region back under control and said the rebels had all been killed, captured or fled. But more than 20,000 troops remained in Swat and adjacent districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Some security officials in Swat have voiced fears that Fazlullah and his loyalists, who escaped into eastern Afghanistan, could make a comeback in the event of a complete army pullout.
The chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pervez Khattak, late Saturday approved the phased withdrawal, his spokesman Shiraz Paracha said.
In the initial stage, troops will be withdrawn from neighbouring Buner and Shangla districts in October.
"Chief minister Pervez Khattak has approved gradual withdrawal of forces from Swat and Malakand division. Forces will start leaving Shangla and Buner districts in the first phase from next month," the spokesman told AFP.
A military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the withdrawal next month of 300 soldiers from Buner and Shangla, but denied there would be a complete troop withdrawal from the Swat valley in coming months.
But the provincial government spokesman said Khattak "has signed relevant documents" and a "detailed plan of complete withdrawal will be finalised with law-enforcing agencies".
The Swat operation was one of Pakistan's most successful offensives against the homegrown insurgents who have bombed and killed thousands nationwide.
Under military control, Swat was largely peaceful. But in October last year schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, a campaigner for girls' education, was shot in the head by the Taliban on a school bus -- an attack that drew worldwide condemnation.
She was flown to Britain for surgery for her head injuries and returned to school in Birmingham in March.
Malala, now 16, was this month awarded the 2013 International Children's Peace Prize.
Speaking at the awards ceremony in The Hague, she vowed to intensify her struggle for "a world where everyone can go to school".