Thai soldiers search Islamic schools for terrorism suspects

Thai soldiers searching for suspected Muslim militants with links to terrorism have raided Islamic schools in the three provinces bordering Malaysia.

The Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who initially blamed"bandits and gun-runners" for an outbreak of violence in the provinces earlier this month, now suspects that some of the 300 islamic schools, or "madrassahs", may be fronts for militant activities. Four soldiers were killed, 21 schools set on fire and about 100 weapons stolen in an attack on an army engineering base on 4 January. The next day a motorcycle bomb killed two policemen.

The Thai government has struggled for decades to integrate the region's Thai Muslims into the country's predominantly Buddhist society. At least 56 soldiers have been killed in the Muslim-dominated border provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat since 2001.

The Thai army has deployed helicopter gunships, armoured personnel carriers, special forces and hundreds of troops in their hunt for suspected militants. Government officials were ordered by Mr Shinawatra to find the stolen weapons within a week or lose their jobs.

Dozens of suspects have been held for questioning and local media reports say at least six arrests were made. Security at Thailand's border with Malaysia has been tightened. Thailand's Justice Minister, Pongthep Thepkanjana, requested that Thai students studying at Indonesian religious schools be closely monitored.

Hambali, the leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, the militant Islamist group linked to al-Qa'ida, was arrested near Bangkok in August last year. And the Thai authorities are keen to reassure tourists visiting the country that they are not at risk from terrorists. Mr Shinawatra, one of the country's richest men, promised to ease unrest by encouraging economic development in the three Muslim provinces. The region is 200 miles from the nearest tourist island, Phuket.

Some security advisers suggest that the recent spate of violence in southern Thailand may be inspired by radical Islamic groups operating beyond the country's borders. General Kitti Rattanachaya, the government's security adviser, criticised the Thai authorities for being "in denial" about the severity of the Muslim threat.

Andrew Tan, an analyst from the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore, said: "If al-Qai'da were linked [to the attacks in southern Thailand], you would see use of sophisticated materials.

"The schools wouldn't just be torched, but blown up with the pupils inside."

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