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Thailand Arrests 6 Suspected Muslim Terrorists - 2003-08-23

Thailand has arrested six more Muslim men on suspicion of terrorist activities, and is taking new preventive measures against possible terrorist bombings.

In his weekly radio address, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said three Pakistanis, two Burmese and a Thai national, all Muslims, had been arrested in the northern province of Chiangmai.

Mr. Thaksin said the foreigners are initially being held on immigration charges, while investigations are under way to see whether the men are linked to any regional terrorist groups or activities.

The arrests mark a heightened state of alert by Thai authorities after the recent capture of the Muslim cleric known as Hambali. Mr. Hambali is the alleged operations chief of the militant regional group Jemaah Islamiyah, and is also said by regional and U.S. authorities to be the Southeast Asian operative for the al-Qaida terror network.

In a further anti-terrorism move, it was reported Saturday that Thailand was planning closer control of large vehicles that might be used as mobile bombs against major buildings. The authorities want to avoid the type of truck bombing that destroyed United Nations headquarters in Baghdad earlier this week.

Jemaah Islamiyah, or J.I., is accused of a series of bombings in the Philippines and Indonesia, including last October's attack on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, and a car bomb attack on a luxury hotel in Jakarta earlier this month.

Mr. Hambali, also known as Riduan Isamuddin, was arrested in Thailand last week, marking a major breakthrough in regional anti-terrorism efforts. Mr. Thaksin earlier said Mr. Hambali was planning attacks on the American, Israeli and Australian embassies in Bangkok.

Carl Thayer, a politics professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy, says Mr. Hambali's arrest marks a significant turning point for Thailand. While the country initially rejected suggestions that major terrorist operations might be carried out on its soil, it has now acknowledged that the threat is real, and it is taking steps to counter that.

"The arrest of Hambali has not only taken out a major actor, it [Thailand] has now moved I think into the circle of four states of Southeast Asia - Thailand is a fifth state that's come from a period of denial into one in seeing that international terrorists have networks and operate in Thailand," he said.

But despite Thailand's recent successes, Professor Thayer says the threat of potential attacks remains. He says there are "possibly hundreds" of hard-core J.I. supporters in the region willing to carry out suicide bombings.