Militants killed in southern Thailand attack

Relatives of suspected insurgents, who were killed when they attacked a military base, watch as the dead body is moved from a hospital to the funeral ceremony The attack led to the biggest loss of life in the area for several years

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Thailand's military says its troops have killed 16 militants who stormed a base in the violence-hit south of the country.

The attack took place before dawn on Wednesday in Narathiwat province, near the border with Malaysia.

No military casualties were reported in the attack, which the Thai army said had involved dozens of militants.

Thailand's three southernmost provinces have been plagued by unrest in recent years.

More than 5,000 people have been killed since a decades-old separatist campaign reignited in the Muslim-majority region in 2004.

Analysis

Nine years after the southern insurgency flared up, and after the loss of more than 5,000 lives, 550 from the security forces, the dynamics of this conflict have not changed. Young men in the poor villages of Thailand's Malay provinces flock to the militant groups, eager to sacrifice their lives for the remote goal of an independent Islamic state. The various Thai state agencies, from the military, to the police, to local government, have failed to offer anything better than muddled, cosmetic responses.

In the village of Tanjung, less than 5km from the marine base, they were burying six of the attackers. These were not shadowy insurgents, sneaking down from the jungle. They were local boys, whose families were well-known to the Thai authorities. Soldiers lined the road into the village, but did not interfere with the funeral.

There was no grief. Young boys laughed as the men quickly dug the graves, then raked the earth up into mounds over the bodies before sundown, in accordance with Islamic custom. They were shahid, martyrs, and needed no prayers to speed them on their way.

I asked the father of 25 year-old Saudi how he felt about the death of his third child. Sad that the army killed him, he said, but happy that he died fighting for the return of our land. He had been jailed for two years, he explained, and then joined the insurgents after his release last year. He smiled, and got on his motorbike, heading back to his home, where some of his eight remaining children may well now join this endlessly violent struggle.

Separatists carry out regular attacks, usually roadside bombings or drive-by shootings.

'Extra alert'

Wednesday's attack is the biggest loss of life in several years. Officials had earlier put the toll at 17 but revised it down.

Pramote Phromin, a spokesman for the Internal Security Operations Command, told Reuters news agency that up to 60 militants wearing military fatigues approached the base at around 01:00 (18:00 GMT on Tuesday).

Soldiers at the base had been tipped off by locals ahead of the attack, officials said.

"There have been frequent attacks this month, so every unit has been on the lookout. Officers have been assigned on a night watch at every base,'' Capt Somkiat Ponprayun, provincial marine corps special task force chief, told the Associated Press.

"This week, residents in Bacho district have also informed the soldiers of small armed movement here and there, which put us on extra alert,'' he added.

The three southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat were annexed to Siam, as Thailand was then known, more than a century ago. Most of the residents are Muslims, unlike the majority Buddhist population in Thailand.

The Thai government has deployed tens of thousands of troops and police to the region, but has been unable to quell the violence.

On Sunday five soldiers were killed by suspected militants in a bomb attack in Yala, a neighbouring province.

The government has recently suggested imposing a curfew in certain parts of the region.

"If we impose a curfew then militants will find it more difficult to enter the area," Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung said.

A temporary curfew has been put in place in six areas in response to the attack.

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