ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A series of airstrikes and ground offensives killed at least 67 suspected militants in Pakistani’s northwestern tribal areas, officials said Friday in an apparent sign of intensified military action after this week’s Taliban school massacre.
Although Pakistani leaders have suggested they could take the fight across the border into Afghanistan, the latest strikes remained in Pakistani territory.
But in a possibly coordinated mission, a U.S. drone strike late Thursday killed five suspected militants near Nazyan in Afghanistan’s Nangahar Province, the U.S. military said. The area is where many Pakistan Taliban leaders, including chief commander Maulana Fazullah, are believed to reside.
In all, more than 100 suspected militants have been killed by the Pakistani air force and army since Tuesday’s slaughter at the Army School and College in Peshawar, which claimed 148 lives, mostly teenage students.
Meanwhile, a key suspect in 2008 Mumbai terror attacks was ordered held in custody by Pakistani authorities a day after a Pakistani judge granted bail, which sparked outrage in India.
The decision to block the bail order for alleged militant commander Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi was widely viewed as an olive branch to India as well as an effort to keep international support for sustained action against extremists.
Lakhvi has been detained in Pakistan since 2009 for his alleged role in plotting the November 2008 siege at Mumbai’s landmark Taj Mahal Palace Tower hotel. The attack, carried out by 10 Pakistani Laskhkar-e-Talia militants, killed 166 people.
Citing a lack of evidence, a judge in Islamabad had set a $10,000 bail Lakhvi on Thursday. But a Foreign Ministry official said Lakhvi was being kept in detention under a statue allowing for the “maintenance of public order.” The government also plans to appeal the bail decision to the country’s Supreme Court.
In further sign of widening pressure on militants, Pakistan’s powerful army chief traveled to the border region Friday to personally oversee the expanding military operation.
Pakistan’s military said ground forces and airstrikes killed at least 17 suspected militants late Thursday. At least 50 more were killed during ground battles Friday, including an ambush assault on militants, the military statements said.
The Associated Press, also citing Pakistani military officials, said the overall death toll was at least 77.
A statement by the spokesman for the Pakistan-based Taliban, Muhammad Khurasani, gave further details of the school attack. Khurasani said new “special-trained” group of militants were dispatched to the school’s auditorium after learning students would be trained in military first aid.
The Taliban leadership issued “clear instructions to the attackers to spare the primary section (of the school) and small kids in the other part of the school and only shoot the targeted students,” Khurasani said. “The children of army people were killed after identification. Hundreds of other innocent students were let free.”
Pakistani military leaders said, however, the vast majority of the slain students were the children of civilians.
“How can I forgive those animals who destroyed the beautiful face of my innocent son?” said Palwasha Khalil, the mother of a 16-year-old killed in the school. “My heart goes out when I think of how painful it was for my son to receive bullets to his head and face.”
With calls for revenge growing across Pakistan, the country’s leaders are also accelerating plans to start execute prisoners convicted of taking part in major terrorist attacks.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif lifted a moratorium on executions this week, and the country’s powerful army chief signed death warrants on Thursday for six alleged “hard-core terrorists” on Thursday.
The men, all of whom had been tried in military courts, are expected to be hanged on Friday or Saturday, officials said. Citing “security concerns,” military leaders say they will not release the prisoners’ names until after they are dead.
But a Pakistani security official, who asked not to be identified, said one of the prisoners scheduled for execution is Mohammad Aqeel, a Taliban militant who was involved in a 2009 attack on Pakistani military headquarters in Rawalpindi.
Pakistani media outlets reported Friday that Arshad Meherban — convicted of attempting to assassinate former Pakistani President Pervez Musharaff in 2003 – is also slated to be hanged within 24 hours.
Pakistani government leaders are also rushing to review the cases of hundreds of other prisoners who had been convicted of terrorism in civilians courts over the past decade.
So far, the Interior Ministry has identified more than five dozen prisoners who have exhausted their appeals and could face execution in the coming weeks.
Haq Nawaz Khan and Aimar Iqbal in Peshawar contributed to this report.