Insurgents plunge Thailand into security crisis

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The Independent Online

The Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, vowed to track down their killers. Analysts said the incident could lead to a further escalation in a separatist insurgency in provinces with a Muslim majority, which has killed more than 1,000 people over the past 21 months. Malaysia placed security forces on alert along its northern border to prevent any spillover of the violence. Muslim rubber-tappers and labourers expressed fear of reprisal killings.

At least 500 villagers had surrounded Sub-Lieutenant Vinai Nabut and Petty Officer Khamthon Thongeiat as they were pulled from an unmarked car moments after a fatal shooting at a local teashop. Four other customers were wounded in this attack, which reminded villagers of an attack in June in which the cleric of the local mosque was hit. Before dying, he identified his assailants as government agents in plain clothes.

Hundreds of women with small children blockaded the road into Tanyonglimo village in Narwathiwat province, and prevented the rescue of the marines during a 19-hour stand-off that ended on Wednesday afternoon.

Officials insisted that the armed marines, although out of uniform, were pursuing intelligence leads and were not part of any death squad. "It was a coincidence that the two marines came when the shooting happened," Thammarak Issrangkura Na Ayutthaya, the Defence Minister, said. Some reports said their car had stalled in the crowd.

The village headman, Romoeli Tingi, said relatives of the tea shop shooting victims did not believe the marines had fired the shots, and had planned to let them go. After the marines were tied up, they were given water and food, and villagers demanded Malaysian reporters who could understand their dialect be summoned.

By the time the reporters arrived, negotiations no longer were possible. Later, Mr Romoeli complained that milling crowds of outsiders may have provoked the killings. "More than half of them were not from this village," he said. Witnesses said that while elders left to pray in the mosque next door, three hooded militants rushed in to stab the marines, then bludgeoned them with a sledgehammer and iron staves.

Rumours are rife in a region that has been plagued by beheadings, drive-by shootings, and classroom bombs since January 2004. Najmudin Uma, an Islamic scholar who took part in negotiations, told a local television news team that the murders happened after people "whispered that troops would stage an attack through the rubber plantation".

Thailand's Crown Princess Sirindhorn attended the marines' funeral service yesterday in Narathiwat, in a rare appearance that underlined the concern of the royal family. Hundreds of military families paid their respects.

Thailand is overwhelmingly Buddhist, with the four per cent of Muslims concentrated in the southern three border provinces, where they are 80 per cent of the population. A century ago much of the area was under the rule of a sultan.

The Prime Minister blamed critics of his tough policy for the deaths, saying security forces overly concerned about political correctness were reluctant to take decisive action that might have saved the two marines. Following the death of 85 Muslim protesters in army custody, political opponents have warned Mr Thaksin not to be heavyhanded.Under his new decree, federal enforcers cannot be prosecuted for rights violations in the south and residents are suspicious of such impunity.