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Thailand: Officials Warn Of Possible Retaliation After Deaths Of Over 100 Muslim Militants

Thai officials are warning of possible retaliatory attacks the day after more than 100 Muslim militants died in clashes with security forces in the south of the country. The violence has shocked many, and led some to question whether the actions by the authorities may have been disproportionate.

Prague, 29 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Thailand's defense minister today warned of possible retaliatory attacks a day after more than 100 Muslim militants died in clashes with security forces in the south of the country.

Defense Minister Chettha Thanajaro said troops are prepared for a "second and third wave of attacks." Soldiers were meanwhile fanning out through three southern Muslim-majority provinces to restore order.

The violence broke out early yesterday when militants, mostly teenagers and young men, stormed several security outposts in an apparent attempt to steal weapons. Troops later stormed a mosque in the city of Pattani where militants were staying, killing at least 30. Five soldiers and police were also killed.

The attackers were primarily armed with machetes.

The violence shocked local Islamic leaders. Umar Bin Yussof, the secretary of the Pattani Islamic Council, said: "It's a sad, sad thing that happened. We've never seen anything like this before and had never thought that it could ever happen here. I can't believe that more than [a] hundred people have been killed and wonder why it happened. There has never been this terror in Pattani."

Authorities said the deaths were justified as the only way to halt separatist violence. But the number of deaths left many wondering whether the government used too heavy a hand in putting down the militants. The New York-based rights organization Human Rights Watch, for one, says the response by security forces appears to have been disproportionate.

Bin Yussof agrees. "I don't think the relatives of the dead will agree with the authority's actions,” he said. “[The militants] had entered the mosque, which meant they were cornered and surrendered. Why didn't the authorities just surround them for a few days? Killing in a mosque is really bad."

In neighboring Malaysia, where many share ethnic and religious ties with Muslims of southern Thailand, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi expressed worries that the bloody clashes could spill across the border.

In the meantime, outlawed Thai separatist groups are warning foreigners to stay away from Thailand's top tourist destinations and called for a Muslim uprising.

Stephane Dovert is the director of the French Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia in Bangkok. In an interview with Radio France Internationale, he said the government's actions may not have any long-term success. He said the fact that the men were mostly young shows that the problem also has political and economic aspects that cannot be solved through violence.

"This is an issue related to identity involving religion. The [local] population is Muslim [while] more than 90 percent of the [total] population is Buddhist. But there is also a local specific culture, which does not only include religion. This can justify separatism in the far southern region, which was integrated late. This population is underprivileged and there is a unique economic and social situation," Dovert said.

Dovert said the killings could aggravate discontent among the local population and make Thailand a target for international terrorism.

In a recent interview with RFE/RL, Caroline Bain from the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, noted that parts of southern Thailand could potentially offer sanctuary and recruits to Islamic terrorists. "The sympathy [for militants] is probably growing,” she said. “The southern part of Thailand is one of the poorest parts of the country. It's for a long time felt quite alienated from the authorities in Bangkok. There's a different religion, different culture, very high unemployment. So it's quite an isolated part of the country and thus is quite ripe for recruiting."

Yesterday's violence is the latest in a wave of recent shootings, bombings, and arson attacks in Thailand's Muslim south that has claimed the lives of 65 security personnel, government officials, and Buddhist monks.

(Editor’s note: The interview with Stephane Dovert was conducted by Alain Renault and was used in this report with the permission of Radio France Internationale.)