A roadside bomb and shootings killed seven Thai soldiers Friday in one of the deadliest attacks on security forces this year in Thailand's restive south, amid tightened security on a key anniversary of a 15th Century Islamic sultanate.
The soldiers were rushing to the site of a gunbattle between soldiers and suspected Muslim insurgents in Yala province's Bannang Sata district when a bomb exploded near their vehicle, police Col. Anirut Im-Erb said.
The explosion killed some soldiers instantly and destroyed the pickup truck they were in, he said. An unknown number of assailants then opened fire on them, leaving the total number of soldiers dead at seven with one severely wounded.
Another soldier was injured at a nearby government health office where the earlier gunbattle broke out, he said.
Since a Muslim rebellion flared in Thailand's three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat in early 2004, near-daily bombings, drive-by shootings and other attacks have killed more than 2,300 people.
The region is the only one with a Muslim majority in Buddhist-dominated Thailand. Southern Muslims have long complained about being treated like second-class citizens.
Violence has waxed and waned for decades in the three provinces which were annexed a century ago. The militants haven't publicly stated their goals, and it isn't clear whether they want a separate Islamic state in what was a Malay sultanate before the annexation.
Authorities have stepped up security over concerns that violence may escalate on the anniversary of the establishment of the Sultanate of Pattani on June 15, 1457, said army spokesman Col. Akara Thiprote.
Soldiers are increasingly falling victim to the roadside bombings and shootings, with seven killed in an explosion in May and three killed in a bombing in April.
Soldiers are increasingly falling victim to the roadside bombings and shootings, with seven killed in an explosion in May and three killed in a bombing in April. From January to May this year, 36 soldiers have fallen victim to the violence.
Since violence flared in January 2004, 136 soldiers have been killed.
Along with attacks on soldiers, Muslim insurgents have targeted Buddhist civilians in what is believed to be an attempt to drive them from the area, and to rouse animosity between followers of the two religions. Muslim citizens — especially those seen as collaborating with the government — have also been killed.
In a separate incident Friday, a lone gunman killed three Muslim leaders and seriously injured a fourth when he sprayed their vehicle with assault rifle fire in Pattani's Mai Kaen district, police Maj. Hantee Koraharee said, adding that police were investigating the shooting.
After three Muslim religious leaders were killed earlier this week in separate attacks across the south, local villagers blamed the deaths on the army and demanded authorities bring the culprits to justice.
At the time, Akra said Muslim insurgents were behind the killings. He said the insurgents killed them, then blamed local authorities in an effort to instigate hatred against government officials.
Thailand's current military-backed government says it is seeking talks with the rebels and has adopted a "hearts and minds" approach to ending the insurgency, reversing the hard-line military style of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. But the response from the rebels has been an intensified campaign of violence.