Pakistani security forces killed more than 50 suspected militants Friday as operations against insurgents intensify in the wake of a Taliban school massacre that killed 149 people.
The bloody rampage in the northwestern city of Peshawar on Tuesday brought international condemnation and promises of swift, decisive action against militants from Pakistan's political and military leaders.
The first hangings of militant prisoners on death row are expected in the coming days after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif lifted a moratorium on executions in terror cases. An ambush by security forces in the northwest on Friday left at least 32 militants dead, to add to 27 killed in air strikes and ground operations on Thursday.
"Reportedly a group of terrorists was moving from Tirah towards Pak-Afghan border. Security forces ambushed the moving group at Wurmagai and Spurkot, killing 32 terrorists in exchange of fire," a military statement said. In a separate operation on Friday, 18 militants were killed in Khyber, the military said in a statement.
The army has been waging a major offensive against longstanding Taliban and other militant strongholds in the restive tribal areas on the Afghan border for the last six months. But a series of fresh strikes after the Peshawar attack, which wrought devastation at an army-run school, suggest the military is stepping up its campaign.
As the Peshawar tragedy unfolded, army chief General Raheel Sharif said the attack had renewed the forces' determination to push for the militants' "final elimination". In the southern city of Karachi on Friday, a suspected local Taliban commander and three cadres were also killed during a raid by government paramilitary Rangers personnel.
"The terrorists threw hand grenades and opened fire on Rangers as they cordoned off their hideout in Musharraf colony during a pre-dawn raid," Rizvi told AFP.
Army chief Sharif signed death warrants for six insurgents convicted in military courts late on Thursday. It is not clear when the executions will be carried out but a senior security official said the six would be hanged "within days". The prime minister's announcement that hangings would resume for terror convicts, ending a six-year moratorium, triggered warnings of a possible jailbreak attempt in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the troubled northwestern province that has Peshawar as its capital.
Security officials said there were fears that militant groups could try to spring high-ranking comrades from jails to avoid the noose. Rights groups estimate Pakistan has at least 8,000 prisoners on death row, and courts continue to pass the sentence, but the country has had a de facto moratorium on civilian executions since 2008. The only prisoner to be executed since then was a soldier convicted of murder by a military court, hanged in 2012.
Death toll rises
The death toll from Tuesday's attack rose to 149 on Friday as a critically wounded student succumbed to his injuries overnight in hospital, security officials said. The atrocity was already the deadliest terror attack in Pakistan's troubled history, surpassing the 139 killed in bomb blasts targeting former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007.
Pakistan has endured countless bomb and gun attacks since the homegrown Islamist insurgency rose up in 2007, but the scale of the carnage and the fact the victims were children caused deep shock and revulsion. But doubts remain about Pakistan's willingness to abandon its long-held ambivalence over militant groups - tolerating those it sees as potential proxy forces.