BANGKOK — Muslim separatists in southern Thailand have beheaded nine persons in recent weeks, employing a gruesome new strategy that the nation’s interior minister thinks they have “copied from the violence in Iraq.”
The stomach-churning practice, used by Iraqi terrorists in an effort to weaken the will of American and other Western supporters of the new government, also has been taken up by extremists in Afghanistan, where six soldiers were found beside their severed heads over the weekend.
Afghan terrorists also claimed to have beheaded a missing American soldier in Afghanistan, but U.S. officials said they had no evidence to support the claim.
The latest beheading in Thailand occurred Tuesday after assailants with assault rifles ambushed a police sergeant major on a motorcycle as he left his home in the Yarang district of Pattani province, officials said. After fatally shooting him, one of the attackers decapitated the corpse with a machete.
In a similar attack June 29, a 57-year-old construction worker was approached by two men on a motorcycle and held at gunpoint. As his construction team watched in horror, he was shot in the head and then decapitated with a machete.
Other beheadings include a rubber-plantation worker, a retired Buddhist teacher, a couple from Laos, a cloth vendor and other civilians.
The string of beheadings has rattled security forces, which a government-appointed commission recently accused of “dereliction of duty” after 78 Muslim civilians suffocated in army trucks. The commission also accused the authorities of using “excessive force” to kill 31 armed rebels in a mosque.
“We are really concerned about the beheadings because it is so brutal,” Interior Minister Chidchai Vanasathidya told reporters. “Our intelligence has found it was copied from the violence in Iraq.”
In Kabul, the Afghan capital, authorities yesterday reported the decapitated bodies of six police officers kidnapped by Taliban extremists were found Saturday in Helmand province near the Pakistan border.
“Six policemen were beheaded yesterday; it was a very brutal act,” provincial governor Sher Mohammad Akhundzada told Reuters news agency, adding that government forces were searching for those responsible.
Taliban spokesman Abdul Latif Hakimi had claimed on Saturday that his organization had beheaded a missing Navy SEAL, the only unaccounted-for member of a four-man reconnaissance team that went missing in eastern Kunar province.
U.S. military spokeswoman Lt. Cindy Moore said that she had no information to support the Taliban claim and that authorities still were searching for the missing commando.
“We are always hopeful,” she said.
In Thailand, the nine beheadings have spanned a five-week period and served to traumatize officials and civilians in the south.
For the past 18 months, Buddhist-majority Thailand has been steadily losing the battle against ethnic Malay Muslim separatists who have become increasingly secretive, sly and successful in bombing, burning and shooting military and civilian targets on a near-daily basis.
Since January 2004, at least 790 persons have died and 1,217 have been wounded in fighting between Muslim militants and Thai security forces, police said. Many of the dead and injured have included Buddhist monks, teachers, plantation workers, businessmen and shopkeepers.
Thai officials told visiting Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in June that there was no evidence that Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda — or other foreign Islamists — are operating in the south.
Thai officials insist that the fight is not a religious feud between Muslims and Buddhists, but instead involves southern Muslims who have been alienated by years of perceived injustice, discrimination, poverty and neglect by Bangkok.
Islamist slogans and tactics used by al Qaeda and its allies, apparently have inspired Muslim separatists, bolstering their bid for an independent homeland.