updated 6/19/2009 2:34:33 PM ET 2009-06-19T18:34:33

Muslim insurgents in southern Thailand must stop the "sickening trend" of attacking teachers, 115 of whom have been killed since the outbreak of the separatist rebellion five years ago, a human rights organization said Friday.

As part of a general recent escalation of violence, five teachers have been killed since the beginning of the new school term in May, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

The insurgency in Thailand's three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat has led to the deaths of more than 3,500 people, both Buddhist and Muslim, since early 2004.

"In a sickening trend, separatist insurgents are increasingly attacking teachers, who they consider a symbol of government authority and Buddhist Thai culture," the group said.

The statement said that hundreds of teachers have requested transfers from the region.

"The attacks on teachers not only violate international law prohibitions against targeting civilians, but also threaten children's basic right to education," it said.

200 schools burned down
The militants are believed responsible for the killing of 115 teachers and wounding more than 100 others since early 2004, and the burning down of more than 200 schools in the same period, Human Rights Watch said.

A further spike in the violence began after the killing of 10 Muslims at a mosque in Narathiwat on June 8.

Some Thai authorities blamed the mosque attack on insurgents, claiming it was meant to enflame tensions between the Muslim and Buddhist communities.

Rumors have also circulated that the mosque attack was masterminded by Thai authorities, something strongly denied by the government.

The insurgents are generally believed to be fighting to carve out an independent Muslim state in the three southern provinces. While many there do not support the rebels, there is widespread distrust among Muslims of the predominantly Buddhist Thai authorities.

It is widely believed that some local Buddhists, with the help of rogue security forces, have their own vigilante groups to fight suspected insurgents.

Since the start of this month, 36 people have been killed and more than 100 have been wounded in violence in the south.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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