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Thai Mosque Attack Leads To Political Bickering

Thai Mosque Attack Leads To Political Bickering
by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Military officers, politicians, Muslim leaders and others bickered on Thursday (April 29) about the army's killing of 107 armed Islamic militants, and destructive assault on a mosque, during Thailand's bloodiest clashes in modern times.

Many expressed concern that news about the bullet-scarred Krue Se mosque -- and the blood splattered across the Arabic calligraphy of its Koran, Islam's holiest book -- could incite Thailand's four percent Muslim population and Muslims in other countries.

The interior of the modest, one-story, brick mosque was in shambles after troops allowed the public to retrieve damaged sacred texts and scrub congealed bloodstains off the floor after troops killed 32 suspected militants inside the mosque.

"The first authorities to enter the mosque after the massacre spoke of gruesome encounters. Bodies of militants, some badly dismembered, were strewn across the hall. They carried fatal wounds to the head," the respected Bangkok Post reported on Thursday.

The government described the attackers as "militants" and "criminals" intent on stealing weapons from the security forces to sell on the blackmarket.

But some attackers shouted Muslim slogans praising Allah during synchronized clashes in Pattani, Yala and Songkhla provinces, apparently in support of an independent homeland, witnesses told reporters.

Thailand's hawkish prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, defended his government's use of armored personnel carriers and helicopters during Wednesday's (April 28) battles, in which three police and two soldiers also died, resulting in a one-day death toll of 112.

Alarmed, however, he convened a secretive, closed-door session of parliament on Thursday to discuss the problems away from the media's spotlight.

The no-nonsense deputy director of the Internal Security Operations Command, Gen. Panlop Pinmanee, appeared to suffer for his decision to order troops to storm the Krue Se mosque in Pattani city, 470 miles (752 kms) south of Bangkok.

Gen. Panlop was ordered to leave the south immediately and was accused of disobeying orders not to attack the mosque, according to Thai media.

"I had no choice. I was afraid that as time passed, the crowd would be sympathetic to the insurgents, to the point of trying to rescue them," the general was quoted by the Nation newspaper as saying.

Officials also worried how the horrific, televised events would affect the country's tourism and investment sectors, and the reaction by international human rights organizations.

The foreign ministry reportedly told its diplomats and foreign embassies that the attackers were not linked to international terrorists, and the fighting was Thailand's internal, domestic problem.

Opposition politicians and Muslim leaders confirmed their anti-terrorist credentials, but expressed confusion over why security forces shot dead so many militants, when many of the men appeared armed only with machetes, though some possessed guns.

The militants, however, had displayed deadly expertise in wielding machetes while riding as passengers on motorcycles, and had fatally hacked scores of police and army personnel, government officials, businessmen, Buddhist clergy and others throughout the south -- almost on a daily basis since January.

Machetes were probably their weapon of choice because they lacked enough guns, and most men can swing its wide blade but are not trained to fire a weapon.

In southern Thailand, men often carry a machete because it is used for agriculture in jungles and plantations, so machete-wielding attackers enjoy an advantage when blending among the public.

They may also have been inspired by Islam's emphasis on defending their monotheistic religion with a sword.

While this Southeast Asian nation's Buddhist majority and Muslim minority conducted a post-mortem of the grisly news, many agreed that Thailand was deeply traumatized and worse was sure to come.

"Kingdom Shaken," said a banner headline across the front page of the respected, English language Nation newspaper.

"Will our country be the same again?"

Washington and Bangkok are staunch allies, and Thai troops currently bolster the American-led occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq.

But the bloodshed in the south erupted 10 days before the U.S. and Thailand start their annual Cobra Gold combined military exercise.

About 13,500 U.S. service members join 6,000 Thai troops, plus armed forces from Singapore, Mongolia and the Philippines for Cobra Gold in Thailand on May 13-27 to "enhance security relationships and demonstrate U.S. resolve to support the security and humanitarian interests of U.S. friends and allies in the region," the U.S. Embassy said.

"We are concerned about threats to public order and stability in southern Thailand (as) represented by these attacks," said U.S. State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli.

"We want to work with the Thai government to help them get the situation under control in a way that is responsive to the needs of the citizens of that part of the country," Mr. Ereli said.

Security throughout the south and in Bangkok was upgraded another notch on Thursday, while investigators also continued to search for 1,500 kilograms (3,300 pounds) of ammonium nitrate which unidentified gunmen stole on March 31 from a quarry in Yala province.

That amount of ammonium nitrate can be turned into a bomb with explosive power similar to the fatal blasts which wrecked havoc in Istanbul, Riyadh, Bali and Oklahoma City.

Wednesday's death toll was the worst in Thailand's recent history, topping the official count of 72 people who perished during a popular uprising in Bangkok against military rule in 1973, though the real number from that event may never be known.

*****

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 http://www.geocities.com/glossograph/

-ENDS-

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