Honduras' new militarized force began operations Monday with a mission to improve public safety in a nation of 8.5 million people that has a murder rate nearly 10 times the global average.

The first units were deployed here in the capital and in San Pedro Sula, the country's second city and business hub, Defense Minister Marlon Pascua told reporters.

Residents of the poor, gang-ridden Tegucigalpa suburb of Flor del Campo were surprised early Monday to see members of the new force on their streets.

Wearing masks to cover their faces, the militarized police are armed with automatic weapons.

One of the commanders of the contingent in Flor del Campo said he and his men planned to remain in the neighborhood for several days and he urged residents to provide names of gang members and other criminals.

In the northern metropolis of San Pedro Sula, militarized police were spotted in a shopping area and riding shotgun on public buses.

The militarized police will gradually extend it operations to other Honduran cities, Pascua said, adding that the roughly 2,000 army troops deployed last year in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula to enhance public safety will remain on the street for now.

The new police force is intended to include 5,000 officers recruited from within the ranks of the army.

Some in Honduras, including candidates running for office in the Nov. 24 general elections, oppose the militarization of law enforcement tasks.

The 14,000-strong civilian National Police is currently undergoing in a massive housecleaning process aimed at rooting out corrupt and abusive officers.

Honduras suffered 85.5 homicides for every 100,000 residents in 2012, compared with a global median rate of 8.8 murders per 100,000, the Violence Observatory at the National Autonomous University said in a study released in February. EFE