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New Deaths in Southern Thailand Apparently to be Revenge Attacks

Authorities in Thailand say at least seven people have been killed in the south in what appears to be in revenge for the deaths last week of 85 Muslims at a demonstration. Civic leaders fear the violence will spiral out of control, despite efforts by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to investigate the demonstration deaths and appease local residents.

Thai police say a police major in Yala province and two railway workers in Narathiwat province were gunned down Thursday. And four others were killed the night before. Several others, including a Buddhist monk, were wounded.

Police say they believe the attacks were in retaliation for the deaths last week of 85 Muslims following a demonstration at a police station in Narathiwat province. Seven demonstrators were killed as police tried to disperse the protesters and 78 died afterwards, mostly from suffocation, while being transported in overcrowded trucks to detention centers.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has ordered an independent investigation and the senior military commander in the region has relinquished his post. The prime minister Wednesday met with Muslim leaders and appealed for help to bring peace to the region.

The secretary-general of the Forum Asia civic group, Gothom Arya, notes that the Thai government has made conciliatory gestures and has softened its tone. But he says Muslims continue to fear and mistrust the government of predominantly Buddhist Thailand.

"It seems that we have not been able to reach the hearts and minds of the people," he said.

More than 400 people have been killed since the violence erupted in the southern provinces in January.

Thai authorities say Islamic militants, seeking to create a separate state in the Muslim-dominated south, are behind the violence. Muslim leaders, however, say heavy handed tactics by security forces have alienated the local population.

Mr. Gothom says an atmosphere of fear is creating stressful conditions that are contributing to the violence.

"We have to reverse the trend," he said. " If we go along with the fear factor, the militants who attack ordinary people or officials, they will succeed."

The violence has closed schools on repeated occasions, as teachers are afraid to leave their homes. Hospitals and clinics are reporting staff shortages as doctors and nurses transfer out of the region. Business investment has declined and many non-Muslim residents have moved away.