At least 16 die in Thai rebel attack
Security personnel investigate after after a Muslim insurgent attack on an army base in the troubled southern province of Narathiwat in Thailand earlier today. Photograph: Surapan Boonthanom/Reuters
Thai soldiers repelled an attack on a military outpost early today, killing at least 16 gunmen in what appeared to be a significant setback for ethnic insurgent groups leading a bloody uprising which is now in its ninth year.
Col Pramote Promin, of the army's southern command, said the army had been expecting the attack after being tipped off by villagers and "former insurgents fed up with the violence".
"This helped us to be fully prepared," Col Pramote said.
Thai authorities said one of the men killed in the attack, Maroso Jantarawadee, was a leader of the insurgency.
Srisompob Jitpiromsri, the associate dean at Prince of Songkla University in the southern city of Pattani and an expert on the insurgency, termed the events a "tactical defeat" for the attackers.
"This operation failed but that doesn't mean they will fail in the long term," Srisompob said. "They will try again and again."
About 50 insurgents, who wore ballistic vests and military-style uniforms and had military assault weapons, attacked the outpost soon after midnight local time today, Pramote said. The attack lasted 20 minutes, and those not killed fled into the jungle, some leaving trails of blood.
Thai authorities declared a curfew in the area and said they were checking hospitals and clinics for the injured attackers.
Promote said no Thai soldiers were wounded or killed in the attack.
Thailand's southern insurgency, one of Asia's most deadly and intractable conflicts, has left more than 5,000 people dead since the upswing of violence in 2004.
The motives of the insurgents remain unclear but centre on long-standing resentment on the part of Malay Muslims of the majority Thai Buddhists.
Insurgents often target symbols of the Thai state, including the police, soldiers, government officials and teachers.
More than 150 teachers have been killed since 2004, and many schools have been burned. A school near the site of the latest attack was set afire just before dawn.
Thai authorities said Maroso, the insurgent leader killed in the attack, was a suspect in the killing of a teacher on January 23rd.
Srisompob of Prince of Songkla University said there were two competing trends in the three violence-wracked provinces.
The insurgents are picking higher profile targets. An attack on a shopping mall last year in the city of Hat Yai killed five people and injured 354, including many Malaysian tourists.
At the same time, Srisompob said, Malay Muslims are growing impatient with the insurgency.
"An increasing number of Malay Muslims are fed up with the violence," he said. "The voices of the community are getting stronger."
The number of militants involved in the insurgency was not clear. The military had a list of about 9,000 people it considered likely insurgents.
Thailand has flooded the area with soldiers in recent years. There are about 150,000 security personnel in the three provinces, including military, police and volunteer forces.
New York Times service