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Dec 19, 12:49 PM EST

After school massacre, 2 Pakistan militants hanged


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ISLAMABAD (AP) -- Pakistan hanged two convicted militants on Friday - the country's first executions in years - after the government reinstated the death penalty in response to a horrific Taliban school massacre this week that killed 148, most of them children.

Pakistan also stepped up an offensive against the militants in the country's northwest, along the border with Afghanistan, with warplanes and ground forces pounding their hideouts. A total of 77 militants were killed in the operation, which started late Thursday and went on throughout the day Friday.

The school massacre earlier this week stunned the country and brought cries for retribution. In the wake of the mass killing, the military has struck targets in the Khyber tribal region and approved the death penalty for six convicted terrorists.

The home minister for Punjab province where the two convicted men were hung confirmed their deaths.

"We have started these executions by hanging two terrorists," Shuja Khanzada told The Associated Press. He identified the two men as Mohammed Aqeel and Arshad Mahmood and said they were executed at a prison in the central Punjabi city of Faisalabad.

"Today's executions of terrorists will boost the morale of the nation, and we are planning to hang more terrorists next week," he said.

The Pakistani army chief late Thursday signed the death warrants of six "hard-core terrorists" convicted and sentenced to death by military courts. At the time, no date was given for the executions but authorities moved quickly after the warrants were signed.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Wednesday announced that he would lift a moratorium on executions in terrorism-related cases, as part of efforts to get tough on militants following the Peshawar school killings.

Both Aqeel and Mahmood were tried in military courts so little is known about their court proceedings. Pakistani media reported that Aqeel was convicted in relation to a 2009 attack on army headquarters and Mahmood for his role in a plot to execute former President Pervez Musharraf.

Meanwhile, the military said its ground forces late Thursday killed 10 militants while airstrikes killed another 17, including an Uzbek commander. Another 32 alleged terrorists were killed by security forces in an ambush in Tirah valley in Khyber on Friday as they headed toward the Afghan border, the military said.

On Friday morning, troops killed 18 more militants during a "cordon and search operation" in Khyber, the military said.

The military said the army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, was traveling to Khyber on Friday to meet with troops taking part in the ground operation.

Khyber agency is one of two main areas in northwestern Pakistan where the military has been trying to root out militants in recent months. Khyber borders Peshawar, where the school massacre happened, and militants have traditionally attacked the city before withdrawing to the tribal region where police can not chase them.

The other area is North Waziristan, where the military launched a massive operation in June.

Also Friday, Pakistani security forces killed a senior Pakistani Taliban leader along with seven of his associates in three separate pre-dawn raids in the southern province of Baluchistan, said a tribal police officer, Ali Ahmed.

In schools across Pakistan, special classes were held Friday, with schoolchildren chanting prayers in memory of the victims of the Taliban slaughter. In mosques throughout the country, worshippers also offered special prayers for the massacred innocents in Peshawar.

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Associated Press reporters Zarar Khan and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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