BANGKOK: The identity of attackers who mounted a disastrous raid on Thai forces remained clouded in confusion, with some officials characterising them as highly trained separatists while others said they were merely drug-crazed teenagers.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said on Wednesday that the rebels were â€œyoungstersâ€� armed only with machetes and a few guns, who were working for gun-running gangs who ordered them to steal arms in the raids.
Thaksin said they had no links with international terrorists, and as they were only â€œbanditsâ€� they should not be allowed to use the banner of Islam.
â€œThere is nothing to be afraid of. These are drug addicts,â€� he said.
Defence Minister Chettha Thanajaro contradicted accounts of the rebels as youngsters high on drugs who mounted a kamikaze session armed only with machetes, saying they were well-armed and well-trained in combat skills.
â€œThey showed considerable competence,â€� he said, adding that troops were being substantially reinforced in the south in preparation for revenge attacks by other militants enraged over the loss of the 108 fighters.
Despite the attempts to downplay the sectarian nature of the conflict, press reports highlighted the religious aspects of the raid, saying the attackers screamed religious slogans as they stormed the outposts.
As they lay dead in pools of blood afterwards, many could be seen wearing Muslim skullcaps and the red-and-white checked headscarves popularised as a symbol of rebellion by Palestinian militants.
Chettha and Internal Security Command deputy chief Panlop Pinmanee both said the attacks were an attempt by Muslim separatists to discredit the Thai government.
â€œIt is absolutely certain that they are separatists. They were trained as guerillas for separatist actions by BRN and Pulo,â€� Panlop said, referring to the Pattani United Liberation Organisation and the Barisi Revolusi Nasional, which are among the militant organisations operating in the south.
Nevertheless, the foreign ministry ordered Thai embassies worldwide to inform governments that the clashes were not linked with terrorism or religious conflicts.
â€œThe information department will inform this fact to Thai embassies around the world,â€� the ministry said in a statement. â€œThe incident was not linked international terrorism,â€� it said. â€“ AFP