At least 16 Muslim rebels have been killed after they launched a pre-dawn assault on a military base in the south of Thailand in the deadliest incident in an insurgency that has raged for almost a decade.
Officials said that around 50 to 60 insurgents, some of them wearing military uniforms, attacked the base in Narathiwat, located close to the border with Malaysia and just a few hours drive from some of southern Thailand’s most popular resorts. No soldiers were reported to have been hurt in the ensuring gun-battle and troops claimed they had been tipped off about the attack in advance.
“What we know so far is at least 60 armed insurgents opened fire at our marine base in Bacho at around 1.30am this morning and 17 of them were killed,” Lieutenant-General Paradorn Pattanathabutr, secretary-general of the National Security Council of Thailand, told Reuters.
The insurgency in the three southern provinces of Thailand has simmered for the past decade and has led to the deaths of at least 5,300 people, according to figures collated by Deep South Watch, a regional monitoring group.
A mishmash of various Muslim insurgent groups, operating in the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, which were once part of an independent Malay Muslim sultanate before being annexed by Thailand in 1909, have sought out military and police targets.
But they have also targeted thousands of civilians and teachers, accused of cooperating with the government or the authorities. These southern parts of Thailand are around 80 per cent Muslim and while the insurgent have made few collective demands for autonomy, they have expressed their anger over the presence of the heavy militarisation has taken place.
The government has dispatched tens of thousands of police, soldiers and paramilitaries to quash the slowly burning insurgency and there have been repeated reports of the misuse of torture.
A 2011 report by Amnesty International said: “The Thai authorities have arrested more than 5,000 people, many of whom were arbitrarily detained and in many cases subjected to systematically to torture. The government has also resorted to enforced disappearances and extra-judicial executions.”
The attack launched in the early hours of Wednesday followed the killing of five soldiers, apparently by insurgents, on Sunday. That in turn came after a series of attacks on civilians, including one this month in which four Buddhist fruit traders, who had travelled to the south from outside the region, were found shot dead with their hands and legs bound.
“From the insurgents perspective, this is a demonstration of their ability to attack both hard and soft targets,” Sunai Phasuk, a Bangkok-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, told The Independent.
The attack in the early hours of today, following which the authorities were able to recover 16 rifles and two pick-up trucks used by the insurgents, represents the deadliest incident since April 2004 when the insurgents launched coordinated attacks on police stations and checkpoints.
In all, around 100 militants were killed, including 32 who were taking shelter at the Krue Se mosque in Pattani, which the government forces stormed. The killings led to an intensification of the insurgency.
The violence has prompted the government in Bangkok to consider imposing a curfew in parts of the south, where the military already has wide-ranging powers of search and arrest under an emergency decree. A meeting of various agencies is due to take place on Friday.
Mr Phasuk said six districts in two provinces were already under curfew and that the military could use what had happened to argue for its extension.