Wednesday April 28, 17:00 PM
PATTANI, Thailand, (AFP) - Clashes between security forces and suspected Muslim rebels in southern Thailand left at least 127 dead in the bloodiest day in the history of the troubled region, officials said.
The authorities said police and soldiers battled armed groups who launched coordinated dawn attacks at 10 police stations and security checkpoints in the provinces of Yala, Pattani and Songkhla near the Malaysian border.
Officials said the attackers were mostly teenagers, poorly armed with only machetes and a few guns. Television footage showed their dead bodies being lifted from pools of blood and thrown unceremoniously into trucks.
The last battlezone was at a mosque outside Pattani provincial town, where between 32 and 38 rebels who had holed up there after fleeing security forces were killed when troops stormed the building to end a six-hour standoff.
Smoke billowed from the heavily-damaged brick mosque as police and internal security officials examined the scene. Elsewhere in Pattani, armoured personnel carriers patrolled the streets and helicopters hovered overhead.
Major Chitnart Bunnothok, spokesman for the Fourth Army which patrols the troubled region, said before the mosque raid that 93 attackers had been killed, 12 were injured and one was arrested.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said only two security personnel were killed and that the toll was low because police and army were well prepared and the attackers were only lightly armed.
The attacks were the latest in a series of bombings, raids and murders in Thailand's southern provinces, which over the past four months have claimed the lives of some 65 security forces, government officials and Buddhist monks.
Deputy Director of the Internal Security Command, General Panlop Pinmanee, said it was "absolutely certain" Wednesday's raids were mounted by separatists and that they were trained by militant groups operating in the south.
He said security officials were braced for an attack after an upsurge in separatist incidents in neighbouring Narathiwat province last week which were staged as a bid to divert authorities' attention.
Thaksin said the raiders were attempting to steal weapons, and that he believed they were linked to a group which carried out a January 4 raid on an army depot, killing four soldiers and making off with hundreds of rifles.
"The purpose of the raid was to steal weapons from government security forces which would then have been sold," he said.
The premier did not contradict Panlop's assertion that separatists were to blame, but downplayed the sectarian nature of the trouble, saying that the militia responsible was made up of both Thai Muslims and Buddhists.
Thaksin said the clashes had mostly been brought under control, boosting confidence on the stock market which suffered sharp sell-off at the opening bell before steadying during the session.
Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist nation but about five percent of the population is Muslim, and most live in the five southern provinces bordering Malaysia.
A separatist movement raged in the region until the 1980s when a government campaign largely ended the movement, but trouble flared again in recent years, sparking fears militants had been mobilised by foreign terror groups.
Islamic leaders said they feared Wednesday's unprecedented violence, and the high death toll among the young rebels, would spark a major deterioration in the south where resentment of central authority already runs high.
"I am really concerned that the problems in the south will escalate even further," said Abdul Rosue Aree, deputy chairman of the Islamic Council in Narathiwat.
"The incident will definitely affect Muslim people's feelings. They will have bad feelings towards authorities and the turmoil will continue, it will not be resolved," he said.