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At Least 93 Killed in Thailand Clashes - 2004-04-28

Officials in Thailand say at least 93 people have been killed in clashes between security forces and militants who attacked some 15 security posts in three southern provinces pre-dawn Wednesday.

Thai officials say Wednesday's attacks occurred simultaneously against police bases, volunteer defense posts and local government offices in the south of the country. They say the attackers, mostly teenagers armed with knives and machetes, were trying to steal weapons - similar to a raid in January on an army barracks in which four soldiers were killed. That incident touched off spates of violence and prompted the Thai government to declare martial law in its three mostly Muslim southern provinces.

The government says it killed scores of militants in repelling Wednesday's attacks and suffered low police casualties.

An editor with Thailand's Nation News media group, Thepchai Yong, says security forces have been on high alert for several weeks. "The kind of operation, like what happened this morning, is something that they had anticipated to a certain degree," he says.

Thai officials believe it is primarily criminal activity but have not discounted influences from regional Islamist militants.

Professor Ron May, an expert on Southeast Asian Muslim separatism at Australia National University, says the militants may be connected to international terrorist groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah, or JI. "JI and other groups have been operating in Southern Thailand and as the army has moved in there have been increasing clashes," says Professor May.

Thai officials at various times in the last four months have blamed the unrest on gangland disputes, rivalries between police, military and local officials, or on Islamic separatists. But no one has been able to definitively describe the attackers or their ideology, if they have one.

Wednesday was the bloodiest clash in years in the mostly Muslim south, where local people for decades have chafed under the central government of predominantly Buddhist Thailand.

In the 1970s, Muslim separatists launched a low-grade insurgency but this ended in the late 1980s with a general amnesty. The attacks flared again in January and since then some 70 people have died, mostly in drive-by killings by men on motorcycles.