Pattani, Thailand, April 28 (Reuters): Troops and police killed more than 100 gun and machete-wielding Muslim militants on Wednesday, including more than 30 in a three-hour mosque shootout, on a day of carnage in Thailand’s restive south.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said 107 “bandits” and five soldiers had died in the fighting, which started when gangs of mainly young men — some wearing Islamic slogans — launched dawn attacks on army and police posts across the predominantly Muslim region.
Their motive remains a mystery. “Judging from their dead bodies, they had taken narcotics. Their smell suggested the use of drug-laced cough drops,” deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh said.
Army chief General Chaiyasidh Shinawatra said intelligence services had been tipped off about the attacks, meaning security forces were ready and waiting for trouble.
Many of those involved in the assaults, which mark a major escalation in four months of violence in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces, were wearing black or dark green uniforms with bright red headbands.
Thaksin vowed to smash what he said were rings of troublemakers motivated purely by crime, rather than by religion or ideology, in a region that saw a low-key Muslim separatist rebellion in the 1970s and 1980s.
But the widespread and coordinated nature of the attacks on about 15 security installations across the provinces bordering Malaysia suggested that forces other than pure gangsterism or drugs were at work, analysts said.
“Those who died must have believed they were dying for their religion,” said Ahmad Somboon Bualang of Pattani’s University of Prince Songkhla. “They must have had an ideology beyond separatism, otherwise why would they attack with their bare hands and swords'”
Television showed a sandbagged police post ablaze after one of the attacks. Burning motorcycles were scattered in and around the compound and the corpses of two rebels lay in the entrance hallway.
One wore a Muslim prayer cap, and both had red scarves tied around their heads and waists.
Another wore a green T-shirt emblazoned with Arabic writing and the letters “JI” — a possible reference to Jemaah Islamiah, the group linked to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida network and blamed for terror attacks across Southeast Asia.
Thailand’s three southernmost provinces have been hit by a wave of shootings, bombings and arson attacks that had already claimed more than 60 lives since a January 4 raid on an army barrack that left four soldiers dead.
Despite a huge military clampdown in the south, the violence has shown few signs of abating, leading analysts to fear that the region’s disaffected Muslim youth might become a fertile breeding ground for the likes of Jemaah Islamiah or al Qaida.