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Thai Security Forces Attack Mosque, Kill Militants

Thai Security Forces Attack Mosque, Kill Militants


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Backed by armored personnel carriers and helicopters, security forces attacked a mosque on Wednesday (April 28) killing Islamic "militants" at the site, during scattered clashes and ambushes which left more than 100 suspects dead in the worst day of bloodshed in the Muslim-majority south.

Security forces battled suspects in southern Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat provinces, leaving some corpses sprawled in blood near crashed motorcycles after authorities gunned them down on roads.

Others were shot while fleeing through the jungle.

"This is an internal event and it is controllable," a grim-faced Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told journalists on Wednesday.

"It is a positive development because I think from here we are moving in the right direction to keep law and order," the prime minister said.

"This is the strategy, a suicide operation, of insurgents who have been brainwashed by a mastermind," Defense Minister General Chettha Thanajaro told journalists.

Buddhist-majority Thailand had hoped its rapidly escalating war with Muslims in the south would not be used by Osama bin Laden's international al Qaeda network, nor impact this Southeast Asian country's lucrative tourist industry.

Army officials cited the insurgents' past four months of successful, synchronized assassinations, machete hackings, and bombings as proof that Muslim guerrillas were fighting for a breakaway Islamic homeland.

The rebels were widely believed to be inspired by Mr. bin Laden and Southeast Asia's Jemaah Islamiyah religious organization in a quest to unite Muslims in Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines and create a regional caliphate ruled by ancient sharia laws drawn from the Koran, Islam's holiest book.

During Wednesday's assault, at least one of the corpses appeared clad in a jacket with the large letters, "J I", stitched onto the back, sparking speculation he may have been linked to Jemaah Islamiyah, a mostly Indonesian-based group blamed for the Bali bombing which killed more than 200 people in 2002.

Muslims in the Thailand's south frequently complain of extrajudicial executions, torture, racism and other abuses at the hands of security forces.

"While the killing of dozens of police, teachers and other civil servants [by militants] is unconscionable and must stop, it is not unreasonable to think those responsible are striking back at authorities the only way they can, meeting violence with violence," the respected Bangkok Post said in a recent editorial.

"We don't know the mastermind yet," the prime minister's spokesman, Jakrapob Penkair, said in an interview.

An initial group of captured and injured attackers were "all male teens," Mr. Jakrapob said.

Throughout the three provinces, at least 107 militants were killed and 17 captured on Wednesday, Thailand's Army Chief, Gen. Chaiyasith Shinawatra, told journalists.

Three police and two soldiers died in the clashes which also injured several others, he added.

During the siege at the Krue Sei mosque, security forces took up position with armored personnel carriers and circled above the structure with helicopters, trapping several alleged militants inside.

Some officials told reporters more than 30 people may have been killed at the mosque during the army's assault.

"They are hiding inside the mosque," Mr. Jakrapob said just before the army's assault.

Villagers earlier suspected the Krue Sei mosque in Pattani province was being used for a nefarious purpose when men arrived at the religious complex at 3 a.m. on Wednesday, in contrast to the mosque's usual influx of worshippers who come at 5 a.m. for morning prayers, Mr. Jakrapob said.

The villagers tipped off security forces, he said.

Some militants used machetes and other weapons to attack security forces in the three southern provinces in a bid to steal weapons from police and army installations and from volunteer militia units, officials said.

Mr. Jakrapob insisted the attackers be described as "militants" and not as "insurgents" because that would imply a "political or religious" motive.

Militants were "people who use violence and arms to achieve their purpose," including "illegal operations...drugs mostly" plus smuggling and other crimes, Mr. Jakrapob said.

Criminals were using "religious and territorial" demands as "excuses" to conceal their intent, Mr. Jakrapob insisted.

They were helped by "some local and national politicians," he added, without elaborating.

"Most of the insurgents are youths from the southern provinces," prime minister Thaksin was quoted on Wednesday as saying.

"Their acts are not linked with international terrorists."

Their "intention was to rob guns from defense volunteers and district offices, but our troops were well prepared for that," the prime minister said.

While officials mix and match adjectives to describe the assaults, southern Thailand has become a crippled zone, with teachers, civil servants, medical personnel, Buddhist clergy and others moving out.

Hospital blood banks are drained from the demand to treat injuries, while fruit orchards, Buddhist temples, schools and other targets are being sabotaged in systematic nighttime attacks.

Before Wednesday's bloodshed, about 150 people on all sides had perished from the violence in the south this year.

Many of the daily assaults have been by teams of two men riding a single motorcycle, enabling the passenger to swing a machete and hack unsuspecting victims along the street while the driver steers toward an escape route.

Officials fear a worse attack may be coming soon.

"Since Thailand has cooperated with USA -- the Satan's states -- and have interfered in the concern of Iraq by sending 443 Thai soldiers to the occupied land, we have our duty to inform you that Thailand is one of our targets after Spain, God willing," stated a letter signed, "Al Bashir al Makkawi", which was posted within Sweden and received by the Thai embassy in Stockholm on April 5, according to Thai media.

The government tried to play down the letter and appeared unable to determine if it was real.

On March 31, gunmen stole 1,500 kilograms (3,300 pounds) of ammonium nitrate from a quarry in Yala province -- enough to build a bomb capable of the widespread death and destruction which rocked Istanbul, Riyadh, Bali and Oklahoma City.

Mr. Jakrapob earlier blamed that theft on "insurgents".

It sparked a nationwide tightening of security at tourist venues, shopping complexes and foreign embassies.

Thailand meanwhile was considering withdrawing all of its forces from Iraq after June 30, and does not want its role in the U.S. occupation to be used as a cause by southern separatists.

Thai security officials, politicians, intellectuals and the media agree the south's problems are opaque because most officials are Thai-speaking Buddhists while many Muslims in the south are of Malay descent and speak Yawi language.

General Pallop Pinmanee, deputy chief of the Internal Security Operations Command, earlier estimated 500 armed separatists were active in the south, using cash and other incentives to pump their numbers.

They enjoy support from 7,000 "sympathizers" among the south's 1.6 million population, Gen. Pallop said.

On March 27, Thailand's worst-ever explosion in the south destroyed a karaoke bar in nearby Narathiwat province, injuring 29 civilians.

In January, the government enforced martial law on Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani provinces, after unidentified men attacked an army barracks and stole hundreds of assault rifles.

Some of this year's attacks were blamed on the shadowy New Pattani United Liberation Organization -- also known by its earlier name, the Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO) -- and other underground separatist units.

*****

Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is www.geocities.com/glossograph/

-ENDS-


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