BANGKOK— The Thai military is urging people in its troubled south to stay indoors after soldiers repelled a large-scale attack on a base by scores of armed militants. At least 16 of the attackers were killed in one of the biggest death tolls in the nearly 10-year insurgency by Malay Muslims seeking autonomy from Buddhist Thailand.
The Thai army says at least 60 heavily-armed insurgents, dressed in military-style fatigues, attacked a base early Wednesday in southern Narathiwat province.
The military says it was tipped off to the planned attack, was ready and suffered no casualties in the exchange of fire. It seized 13 rifles, as well as pistols, bombs, and vehicles.
Most of the militants escaped into forested areas on the Thai border with Malaysia.
Fourth Army spokesman Colonel Pramote Prom-in says the military is urging a self-imposed 24-hour curfew while they search for the remaining attackers.
He says the Fourth Army is asking local people to stay home from 6 am until 6 pm to allow the military to inspect the area. He says bombs are still found in some areas and the military has to hunt for the insurgents.
The colonel gave no further details and says he had no time to respond to questions.
The attack is the bloodiest since 2004, when security forces retaliated against insurgents with heavy firepower, leaving more than 100 dead. Thirty two Malay Muslim militants were killed during the single raid on the Krue-Se mosque, further inflaming the insurgency.
The insurgents are a shadowy group believed to want more autonomy for the south but have no united, public face.
Thailand is majority Buddhist, but its three southern border provinces with Malaysia - Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala, are 80 percent ethnic Malay Muslim.
More than 100 years ago they formed an independent Malay sultanate, until Thailand seized the territory.
A simmering resentment against Thai Buddhist rule exploded in 2004 in fighting that has left more than 5,000 dead, most of them civilians.
Srisompob Jipiromsri is director of Deep South Watch, a Thai think tank on the southern problem. He says Wednesday's attack on the base was not only a tactical failure, but also showed growing support for the Thai military.
"More and more people are fed up with the violence. But, still, the insurgents could keep their own political base or political support among many of the people of the Malay Muslim people," Srisompob stated.
The bloody firefight comes just days after a car bomb and gunfire attack in the south killed five soldiers and wounded five more.
Aside from military and police, insurgents also target teachers, schools, monks and other soft targets viewed as representatives of the Thai Buddhist state.
More than 150 teachers have been killed since 2004. Earlier this month, four fruit vendors were found dead, their hands were tied and they had been shot execution style.
Matthew Wheeler is a Bangkok-based Southeast Asia analyst for the International Crisis Group. He says insurgents are increasingly bold in their attacks and Thailand's political divisions have made ending the violence that much harder.
"It would be a difficult conflict to tackle, under the best of circumstances. But, the prolonged political uncertainty in Bangkok has certainly made it much more difficult for the Thai authorities to do the sorts of things that are necessary to bring about a resolution of the conflict - things like having a sustained dialogue with insurgent leaders," said Wheeler. "And also working on new political arrangements for the south that would provide more space for Malay Muslim identity within the Thai state."
Thailand's security agencies meet Friday to discuss the southern problem and the possibility of a nighttime curfew. But, critics argue a curfew would be of limited help as many attacks happen during the day and limitations on movement would only further alienate the Malay Muslim population.