Suspected Muslim militants ambushed a commuter van carrying a group of Buddhists and killed eight of them execution-style in Thailand's restive south Wednesday, military and hospital officials said.
The attack prompted officials to step up security in the south, where a Muslim insurgency has claimed more than 2,000 lives since 2004.
Militants attacked the van as it slowed into a curve in the road, which they had blocked with a large tree trunk, said police Lt. Kitti Mankhong, a duty officer in the Yaha district of Yala province, where the attack occurred.
The attackers first threw a bomb at the van, then fired at the driver with automatic rifles, and finally opened the vehicle's side door, shooting each of the passengers, he said.
The driver, who was hospitalized with a gunshot wound to the face, survived the morning attack, as did a female passenger. She was hospitalized in critical condition.
"Everyone was shot in the head at close range, execution-style," Kitti said.
Two of the dead were 16-year-old girls.
'Kill them all'
The driver recounted that he heard the insurgents say, "Kill them all," in the local dialect of the Malay language that is widely spoken among southern Muslims instead of Thai, according to Yaha district chief Suppanat Sirunthawinet. He also said that one of the Buddhist women pleaded in vain for the life of her daughter.
"Thais have never seen such a cruel incident. A mother was hugging her daughter as they died," Suppanat said.
He quoted the driver saying that the gunmen did not execute him after they heard him praying for his life in the Malay dialect, which indicated he was likely to be Muslim.
The van was shuttling people from the Betong district of Yala province to Hat Yai, the south's major city, in the neighboring province of Songkhla. All of the passengers were identified as Buddhists and the driver was Muslim.
Police and soldiers were searching for the attackers, he said.
Relations between the Muslim and Buddhist communities in the far south have become strained, but there has been little sign of Buddhist civilians seeking to retaliate for the violence that is often directed at civilians.
Later Wednesday, a bomb exploded outside a mosque in the same district, wounding 11 Muslims, police said. An army spokesman, Col. Akara Thiprot, blamed insurgents.
"They want to trick people into believing that this is retaliation," he said, referring to the earlier killings of the Buddhists. "They want to cause divisiveness between people of different religions."
He said the village where the bombing took place was one of the few in the area that didn't cooperate with the insurgents, who otherwise have a strong influence there.
Police Col. Apirat Sangkhao said another bomb exploded at a tea shop in Yaha, killing one and injuring several others.
No one has claimed responsibility for either bomb.
Separatist anniversary coming
The attacks came as authorities beefed up security for the Tuesday anniversary of the founding of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional, or National Revolution Front separatist group. Police had warned that insurgents might try to mark the anniversary with violence.
The BRN was formed in 1963, partly in opposition to the Thai government's policy at the time of forcing southern Muslims to assimilate into predominantly Buddhist Thai society. The government later changed the policy.
Military officials believed that BRN-Coordinate, a BRN offshoot, has played a vital role in the current violence.
Gen. Montree Sangkhatrap, head of Thailand's Internal Security Operation Command, said heightened security measures would be in effect through March 22. He did not elaborate.
"Certain groups of people have plans to actively instigate violence during this period," he said.
Drive-by shootings and bombings occur almost daily in Thailand's three Muslim-majority provinces — Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani.
Violence has increased since a military-installed government took power in September following a coup that ousted then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Police, soldiers and Muslims viewed as collaborators with the government, along with Buddhist civilians, are targeted by the insurgents.