PATTANI, Thailand — Police gunned down scores of machete-wielding militants who stormed more than a dozen security outposts Wednesday, the bloodiest day yet in Thailand's troubled Muslim-dominated south. The death toll stood at at least 112 people.
Only five security personnel — three policemen and two soldiers — were killed. The rest were insurgents, mostly teenagers.
The eight hours of mayhem ended when police fired tear gas and bullets into a mosque, killing 34 militants who were holed up inside.
Television news reports showed the bodies of suspected Islamic fighters lying in pools of blood, some of them in front of police stations clasping machetes and wearing colored shirts and camouflage pants.
Gunfire echoed as armored personnel carriers cruised deserted village streets and commandos moved through forest. Policemen and soldiers, carrying automatic rifles, crouched as they ran across roads and ditches.
No group claimed responsibility for the highly coordinated assault by possibly hundreds of young militants, although past violence has been blamed on separatists seeking to carve a homeland in the Muslim-majority south of this predominantly Buddhist country.
Authorities were ready
Army chief Gen. Chaiyasith Shinawatra told reporters that 107 insurgents were killed and 17 were arrested. He said 15 policemen were wounded.
Soldiers and police — tipped off in advance — were waiting for the poorly armed assailants. Some had guns but most carried only machetes, said Lt. Gen. Proong Bunphandung, the chief of police for the south.
"The security officers have been patiently working with local people and gathering intelligence. We waited for the right time to achieve this success," he said.
Many parts of the region have been under martial law for months. Security was tightened Wednesday along the border with neighboring Malaysia, which has in the past denied allegations of harboring militants.
The violence erupted at 5 a.m. (2200 GMT Tuesday) when the insurgents attacked more than 15 police bases, village defense posts and district offices in Yala, Pattani and Songkhla provinces in a bid to steal weapons.
It was the worst bloodshed seen in the south where almost daily attacks by gunmen have left nearly 160 people dead this year, including Wednesday's toll.
"Most of the dead insurgents are youths of ages ranging from 15 to 20, but two of the leaders are aged about 50 and 60," Proong said, adding that four of the militants were taken alive.
No links to international terrorists
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said the raids were linked to a Jan. 4 attack on a military camp in nearby Narathiwat province, which triggered an upsurge of violence in the area this year. Four soldiers were killed and hundreds of guns stolen in that raid.
However, Thaksin denied the attackers had connections to international terrorists. "Most of the insurgents are youths from the southern provinces," he said. "Their acts are not linked with international terrorists."
He said the attackers intended "to rob guns from defense volunteers and district offices, but our troops were well prepared for that."
"They arrived at the target point with brand new motorcycles. This proves they got financial support from influential figures, including politicians and drug gangsters," he said.
Yala Gov. Boonyasit Suwanarat also said security forces knew about the attacks beforehand. "Maybe the insurgents underestimated the preparedness of security forces. They used machetes to rob guns and when we fought back they suffered big losses," Boonyasit said.
Complaints of discrimination
The shooting shocked the residents and local leaders in the south. Nimu Magajae, deputy chairman of Yala Islamic Council, said he was told the attackers were drug addicts.
"This is the first time in my life that I have seen so many Muslim youths killed in one day. But if they were drug addicts we do not regard them as religious followers," he told The Associated Press.
Nimu demanded that authorities hand over the dead so they could be buried within 24 hours in line with Islamic custom.
Defense Minister Gen. Chettha Thanajaro described the attacks as a "massive operation," and said the militants struck now probably because they had learned that more troops would be brought into the region to guard schools and teachers targeted by insurgents in the past.
Muslims have long complained of discrimination in jobs and education in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat — Thailand's only Muslim majority provinces.
They also say their culture and language are being subjugated by the Buddhist Thais, and cite as an example the state schools, which teach in Thai language. Muslims in the south speak Yawi, a dialect of Malay, spoken in the neighboring Malaysia.
The alienation caused by the central government's policies has been the source of a decades old separatist struggle, which had subsided after an amnesty in the late 1980s before exploding this year into a frenzy of violence with the army arsenal raid in January.
© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.