| Thai soldiers check security in front of the ancient mosque in Pattani, southern Thailand. (AFP)
Pattani (Thailand) April 28 (Reuters): Southern Thai Muslims sifted through the bloody wreckage of a centuries-old mosque where a battle raged between soldiers and militants today and 34 people were killed.
“This is an over reaction,” cried a Muslim woman in her late 20s, her baby wailing in her arms. At her shoulder, an older woman sobbed silently.
The three-hour firefight at the Krue Sae Mosque, 5 km from the centre of the provincial town of Pattani, capped off a day of bloodshed across predominantly Muslim southern Thailand in which 107 people were killed.
Scraps of flesh and body parts were collected in shopping bags and placed on the lawn of the mosque as health workers pulled huge, blood-stained carpets out of the nearly four-century-old building.
Bystanders covered their eyes and noses, choking against the residue of teargas.
A keeper of the mosque said after the battle he was told by a group of young Muslim men from the neighbouring province of Yala not to guard the building overnight.
“They told me something would happen at dawn,” he said.
Before day broke, a group of Muslim men pretended to have a fight while walking toward a police post in front of the mosque, witnesses said.
A man in his 60s walked toward a policeman at the booth and hit him in the face with a machete. A second officer shot the man, killing him instantly, witnesses said.
Others said about 40 raiders, most of them with hidden weapons and dressed in black, long-sleeved shirts, had been arriving in pickup trucks and cars since yesterday afternoon.
The militants killed one of the police officers and addressed the crowd using a loud speaker before a pitched gun battle began. It went on for about nine hours and at the end, 34 militants were dead.
Security forces allowed stunned onlookers to approach the scene two hours after they cleared the mosque, which local people believe is suffering a centuries-old curse.
The unfinished building has been without a proper roof since the 17th century when lightning struck its dome three times while workers were trying to complete it.
The curse dates back to 1608 when a Chinese architect came to the Pattani kingdom, converted to Islam and vowed never to return to his homeland.
According to legend, his younger sister tried to take him home to look after their ailing mother, but he refused because he had been appointed to head the construction of the mosque.
The sister hanged herself in remorse, but before she died she cursed the mosque, saying no matter how great her brother’s craftsmanship, the building would never be finished.
Malaysia today said it feared violence in southern Thailand could spill over the border and had tightened security along the frontier.
Deputy defence minister Zainal Abidin Zin said Malaysia’s military had to ensure that the rebels did not infiltrate the Muslim country as they fled Thai forces.
“Security along our northern border with Thailand has been beefed up following the military operation in southern Thailand.
“We fear Thailand’s military sweep could cause a spill over of violence into Malaysia. We have to take preventive measures to stop any infiltration of the groups that are being pursued by Thai military,” he said.
Thailand has given permission to teachers in the southern part of the country to carry guns to school to protect themselves, but the defence minister today termed it a bad idea.
Defence minister General Chetta Thanajaro said he is willing to deploy four soldiers in every school in southern Thailand and arrange for teachers to be escorted by troops to and from their homes.
“I think there is no need for teachers to carry guns because they have to spend a lot of money to buy guns,” Chetta said, indicating a discord within the government on how to deal with the continuing violence in the south.