PATTANI: Troops fanned out across southern Thailand yesterday to restore order after a day of carnage in which security forces shot dead 108 Muslim militants and the army said it faced thousands more insurgents.
Army chiefs ordered two extra battalions of soldiers into the three southernmost provinces as the predominantly Buddhist â€œLand of Smilesâ€� digested what newspapers described as one of the bloodiest days in Thailand's modern history.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said 108 â€œbanditsâ€� and five soldiers and police officers died in the fighting, which started when gangs of black-robed young men, some wearing Islamic slogans, launched dawn attacks on around 15 army and police posts.
The reports of suicidal attackers and pictures of the bloody corpses of lightly armed men splashed across front pages have sparked concerns a Muslim separatist rebellion that rocked the region in the 1970s and 1980s has returned with a vengeance.
â€œI would say the military phase has just started,â€� Gen Pallop Pinmanee, who presided over a bloody shootout at a mosque in the provincial town of Pattani, told Bangkok radio.
â€œOur current estimate is that the strength of their armed men and recruits is in the thousands,â€� he said.
Analysts fear that international militant networks, such as Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, might find a fertile recruiting ground among the impoverished region's disaffected Muslim youth.
Critics were quick to question the insistence of Thaksin and his cousin, army chief Gen Chaiyasidh Shinawatra, that drugs and crime rather than religious or separatist ideology lay at the root of the violence.
One of Thaksin's security advisers said the attacks could have been co-ordinated by separatists.
â€œThe incidents were pulled together by separatist movements and gangs of drug dealers and contraband smugglers,â€� Lt-Gen Kitti Ratanachaya told Bangkok television.
Eighteen unarmed players of a village soccer team were among those killed by security forces in the carnage in southern Thailand that claimed 113 lives, district officials said yesterday.
â€œEveryone in Thankiri village and the nearby district â€“ maybe the whole region â€“ knows that 18 people who were shot to death yesterday were the football team,â€� Janae Village Council member Adul Resamae told The Associated Press.
The government will take the blame for Wednesdayâ€™s bloody clash, Interior Minister Dr Bhokin Bhalakula said in Yala, reports SYED AZHAR AND IAN MCINTYRE.
He acknowledged that one factor that led to the violence was the government's inaction to bring development and changes to the three Muslim provinces.
â€œThe lack of development had caused unrest among the people who were pressured into doing something aggressive owing to the lack of jobs, business opportunities and others.
â€œThe other reason is that we had not done anything to stop rogue police who had intimidated them,â€� he said in an interview at Krongpenang district here before meeting religious leaders to explain the situation.
The minister said that Wednesday's incident was the culmination of years of pent-up feelings of discontent among radical Muslims.
â€œActually, all the citizens of Thailand â€“ Buddhists or Muslims â€“ can live in harmony but there are certain instances of misunderstanding over the slow development plans,â€� he said.