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Bombings Mar Thai PM's Visit to Southern Provinces

Violence flared in southern Thailand, as Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra arrived for a three-day visit. The prime minister pledged to continue a crackdown on Muslim separatists, while offering help to the needy in the south. At least eight people were injured.

Three bomb blasts were detonated in the provinces of Narathiwat and Yala hours before Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra arrived in the south.

Mr. Thaksin says attacks during the visit will not interrupt his schedule. The prime minister is making his first visit to three predominantly Muslim southern provinces since his landslide victory in the February 6 general election.

No official reason has been given for his visit, but analysts note that his Thai Rak Thai Party performed poorly in the south during the poll. They also point out that Mr. Thaksin has put a priority on ending the violence in the south during his second term.

Observers such as Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, say the security situation has deteriorated since the election.

"The situation is now coming back to the old problems, with more intensifying activities from the perpetrators trying to create even more trouble in the next few weeks," Mr. Panitan said.

After arriving in Narathiwat on the first leg of his visit, Mr. Thaksin vowed that the government would maintain an "iron fist" against Muslim separatists while wielding a "velvet glove" to assist the poor in the south.

The political opposition, human-rights groups and academics have called on the government to adopt a less militaristic strategy to win greater support from local communities.

Mr. Panitan says the government needs to adopt a comprehensive strategy in terms of securing peace and stability in the south.

"We also need economic and social strategies to try to bring more participation, trying to perhaps create a balance between different communities and different religious groups," Mr. Panitan said.

Many analysts believe that the Thai Rak Thai's failure to win seats in the south reflects dissatisfaction with Mr. Thaksin's hard line approach last year.

At least 500 people have been killed in the south since the separatist insurgency flared 13 months ago, after lying dormant for years. The army is accused of murdering scores of suspected separatists.

Mr. Panitan says the prime minister now appears to appreciate that if he is to win back local support in the southern provinces he will need to adopt measures that both improve security and win the hearts and minds of people.

One concrete sign of that awareness - the Thai Defense Ministry has just announced the formation of a new 12,000-strong military force to promote development and closer cooperation with local communities.