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Thai Police Warn of Expected Attacks by Muslim Separatists - 2004-04-07

Police in Thailand are warning that Muslim separatists have readied five motorcycle bombs for attacks during the country's three-day new year festival next week. The warning follows a series of violent incidents that have raised tensions in the south of the country.

The regional police commander has distributed advisories to police stations throughout the country, warning officers to be on the lookout for unclaimed Honda motorcycles parked near hotels, shopping centers and other public places. The notice says there are five motorcycles that have already been rigged with bombs, and are ready to go off at their designated targets.

Late last month, a motorcycle bomb exploded outside a bar in a southern Thai town near the border with Malaysia, injuring 28 people, including eight Malaysian tourists.

Violence has rocked the Muslim-dominated south since last January, after armed men attacked an army depot, killing four soldiers and making off with hundreds of weapons.

Over 60 people have been killed in the violence, which the government blames on Muslim separatists, although no one has taken responsibility.

Although Thailand is predominately Buddhist, most of the five percent of the population that practices Islam resides in the southern provinces near the Malaysian border.

The head of the special branch of the national police that deals with terrorism, Lieutenant General Jumpol Manmai, says police are on high alert throughout the country, not just in the south, for terrorist attacks during the upcoming new year festival, or Songkran, which is Thailand's biggest holiday.

He says last month's motorcycle bombing in the south has scared away Malaysian tourists and added to the south's instability.

"Malaysia people stop to come into Thailand during Songkran now," said Lt. General Manmai. "Many, many [Malaysian] groups stop to go in [the southern town of] Hat Yai because we had a bomb last month. But now the police have many action to stop again [further violence]."

Fears of terrorist attacks during the upcoming Songkran festival heightened after a huge quantity of explosive materials were stolen from a quarry in the southern province of Narathiwat, which borders Malaysia.

Panitan Watanayagorn, a political analyst from Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University says the violence in southern Thailand may threaten the entire country, if it is not stopped soon.

"The threat in the south is quite real since January 4," he said. "It has been intensifying for the past two weeks, and, of course, the robbery of those dynamite and ammonium nitrate even added to the concern."

The government has proposed a new plan to deal with the problems in the south, which include a general amnesty for Muslim separatists and the lifting of martial law in some parts of the region.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is scheduled to meet with Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in Kuala Lumpur Monday to look for ways to stop the violence.