The Pakistani military has stepped up its campaign against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan after the group claimed the attack on a school in Peshawar earlier this week that left 148 people, most of them children, dead.  

Air strikes and ground operations on Saturday targeted fighter hideouts in the Khyber Agency in the country's northwest, where Peshawar is located.

Intelligence sources told Al Jazeera that the mastermind of the school attack may be one of the 21 suspected Taliban fighters killed in an air strike - although this claim has not been independently verified. Omar Khalifa had claimed responsibility for the attack in a video released online.

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Tuesday's school attack led to international condemnation and calls for action against armed groups.

The army has been waging a major offensive in the restive tribal areas on the Afghan border for the last six months. As the Peshawar tragedy unfolded, army chief General Raheel Sharif said the attack had renewed the forces' determination to push for the fighters' "final elimination".

Saturday's bombardment comes a day after Pakistan hanged two convicted men in the first executions since 2008 after the government ended a moratorium on the death penalty in the wake of the school massacre.

Officials said that there may be 10 more executions in the coming days: six in Punjab province and four in southern Sindh province.

Amid the state's efforts to demonstrate decisive action, Anwar Iqbal of Dawn News stressed that the fight against the Taliban cannot be won purely through military means.

'You need to have people on your side," he told Al Jazeera. "You have to stop the Taliban from recruiting more volunteers, more fighters, more suicide bombers. Unless you succeed in winning over hearts and minds, you cannot win this battle."

US drone strikes

Meanwhile, US drone strikes in the Data Khel area of North Waziristan province left five people dead on Saturday, Pakistani security officials said.

Fight against Taliban
  • The Taliban says the school attack was in retaliation for ongoing army operations in North Waziristan. 
  • The army launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb in the tribal area in June.
  • Since then, more than 18,000 Taliban fighters have been killed.
  • The US has launched around 400 air strikes since 2004, killing more than 2,000.

"A US drone fired two missiles at a compound in Mada Khail neighbourhood of Data Khel area in North Waziristan killing five militants. The death toll is expected to rise," a senior security official requesting anonymity told the AFP news agency.

Also on Saturday, nine people including a policeman and a paramilitary soldier were killed in two separate incidents when security forces hit suspected fighter hideouts in the northwest, officials said. 

In the first incident, police and paramilitary soldiers raided suspected hideouts in the Mechani neighbourhood of Shabqadar, a town around 30km north of Peshawar.

"A soldier of the Frontier Corps and a policeman embraced martyrdom in an exchange of fire with militants in Mechani neighbourhood of Shabqadar Saturday morning," local police official Wilayat Khan told AFP.

He said two fighters belonging to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan were also killed.

In the second incident, five members of the group including a local commander were killed, officials said.

"Five members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan were killed in a raid on their hideout in Gujjar Gadi neighbourhood of Matni, around 16 miles [25km] south of Peshawar," a senior security official told AFP.