By Mark Baker, Herald Correspondent in Singapore
Thailand has been accused of using excessive force to quell a rebellion by militant youths in the country's predominantly Muslim south that ended with the killing of at least 108 rebels.
Human rights groups yesterday called for an independent inquiry into Wednesday's bloodshed as religious leaders warned that the military's handling of the uprising was likely to inflame separatist tensions in the region.
Witnesses said police and troops, warned about the attacks, opened fire without warning on the attackers - most of them teenagers armed only with knives and machetes - as they besieged checkpoints, military depots and police outposts in a series of pre-dawn raids. Three policemen and two soldiers were also killed.
The general who ordered a military assault on a mosque near the township of Pattani - in which 32 rebels died after taking refuge - has been recalled to Bangkok after reports that he ignored orders not to storm the building.
General Panlop Pinmanee is accused of defying instructions to restrain his troops and seek a negotiated settlement with the rebels. He said he had decided to use force to end the siege because he feared the threat to security would become more severe after nightfall as hundreds of people gathered in the area.The storming of the historic mosque, during which commandos fired rocket-propelled grenades and tear gas, has been condemned as an over-reaction by religious leaders. Authorities yesterday ordered two more battalions of troops into the area amid fears of further violence after what Bangkok newspapers described as the bloodiest day in Thailand's modern history.
"Hundreds of their fellow comrades are still around and waiting for the right time for revenge," said the Defence Minister, Chetta Thanajaro. "Troops must be on maximum alert and well prepared for the second and third waves of attacks."
He described the militants as organised militiamen, some of whom had trained abroad. While most of the attackers were teenagers, they were led by a number of men in their 30s armed with AK-47 and M-16 assault rifles, he said.
The minister's comments appeared to contradict claims by the Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, that the unrest was not religiously motivated but the work of "bandits" funded by gangsters and corrupt officials involved in drug running and other smuggling rackets. Aides said most of those killed had tested positive for drugs.
Witnesses said many of the youths involved in Wednesday's attacks had chanted "God is great" as they surged towards waiting security forces and were cut down by gunfire. Officials said 18 of those killed were members of a village soccer team.
Some wore shirts embroidered with the initials "JI", a possible reference to the radical group Jemaah Islamiah.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch and Thailand's Union for Civil Liberties backed calls for an investigation. (SMH.au)