Monday, January 5, 2004

BANGKOK — Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said yesterday he will enforce martial law in Thailand’s mainly Muslim south, where insurgents this week have seized weapons, burned schools and attacked police outposts, killing four soldiers and three policemen.

Authorities said it was still not clear whether the two days of attacks were the work of Muslim insurgents angry about Thai troops in Iraq, or sophisticated criminals creating an atmosphere of confusion and intimidation in which they can commit illegal acts.

Martial law was already in existence in the region, but will now be strictly implemented because “ordinary jurisdiction will not work,” said government spokesman Jakrapob Penkair in an interview.

The wave of violence started Sunday, when about 30 raiders attacked an armory in Narathiwat province, killing four soldiers and stealing more than 100 American-supplied M-16 assault rifles, an army spokesman said.

Assailants set fire to about 20 schools in the province and destroyed several police posts in what appeared to be related attacks.

Yesterday, the insurgents exploded two bombs in the city of Pattani, killing three policemen and injuring several others, Mr. Jakrapob said. Two other bombs were discovered before they could be detonated.

The spokesman said it was “too early” to tell who was responsible, but suspicion fell on the banned Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO), which boasted in May that Thai security forces were “falling like leaves” as Muslims fought to free the south from Bangkok’s rule.

Muslims make up only 4 percent of the population in Thailand, which is 95 percent Buddhist, but are a majority in the extreme south of the country along the border with Malaysia.

Yesterday’s attacks came as hundreds of troops scoured the region searching for the perpetrators of Sunday’s raids, which demonstrated the insurgents’ ability to stage synchronized guerrilla operations.

The assailants drove a pickup truck into the Thai army’s camp at Narathiwat Ratchanakarin and opened fire, killing four soldiers guarding a weapons stockpile.

The attackers fled, scattering spikes on the road to deflate pursuers’ tires, and blocked the route with felled trees containing booby traps amid the branches, according to Thai news reports.

The assailants also splashed gasoline on about 20 schools and ignited them — a tactic favored over the past decade by Muslim separatists, who complain that Islamic subjects are given short shrift in the education system.

But Mr. Jakrapob insisted the attackers were “robbers” who had no ideological motivation.

Other authorities, convinced the attacks could not have been carried out without detailed knowledge of the military camp, suggested that corrupt officials may have played a role.

“It is inconceivable that a civilian could have sneaked inside the camp and sent information to the bandits,” said Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, a retired general. He described the attack as “well-planned.”

Yesterday’s violence began with a blast in a police guard booth in Pattani that killed one policeman and injured three others, Mr. Jakrapob said. An hour later, another bomb exploded in a police station in a city park, severely injuring another policeman.

“Police found more bombs planted near a department store,” and while trying to defuse one of them, “we lost two more policemen,” Mr. Jakrapob said.

Thai news media speculated that the attacks may be related to the nation’s support of U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have angered Islamists across Asia.

More than 420 Thai troops are in Iraq, and President Bush recently upgraded Thailand to “major non-NATO ally” status.

Muslim ethnic Malays have conducted hit-and-run skirmishes against Thai security forces for centuries, seeking to end what they regard as “racist” Buddhist domination.

PULO Deputy President Lukman B. Lima, in a rare dispatch from exile in Sweden, charged in May that Bangkok “illegally incorporated” the far south into Thailand 100 years ago and now rules it with “colonial” repression while “committing crimes against humanity in the area.”

Bangkok denies all complaints of intentional mistreatment of Thailand’s Muslims and insists separatist guerrillas are “bandits” enriching themselves while spewing religious and political rhetoric.

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