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Thailand's PM Visits Troubled Muslim Provinces - 2004-05-06

The prime minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, has begun a three-day visit to the country's troubled southern Muslim provinces. The trip comes as police issue their first arrest warrant in last week's deadly attacks on Thai security posts by suspected Muslim militants that left 108 people dead.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is holding talks with local religious and community leaders in the country's southern provinces, Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala and Songkhla, home to most of the six million Muslims in predominantly Buddhist Thailand. He will also talk with Muslims who lost family members in last week's bloody clashes between security forces and suspected Islamic militants.

On April 28, militants launched coordinated pre-dawn attacks on police and army facilities, but were repelled by authorities. Five security officers and more than 100 militants were killed.

Muslim leaders and human rights activists have criticized the police for being too heavy handed, resulting in such a high death toll. Local residents are also in shock and fear more attacks could occur.

The prime minister's visit to the region aims to calm fears and rebuild trust with the provinces, which have been plagued by a wave of violence since January.

Thai government spokesman Jakrapob Penkair says Mr. Thaksin is focusing on security issues.

"We have to consider this immediate security problem and try to resolve [it] decisively but with caution and care, to involve communities in the south in the resolving process, meaning religious leaders and local leaders, educators," he said.

Meanwhile, Thai police have issued their first arrest warrant in last week's attacks. They are seeking 33-year-old Yusof Rayalong, a headmaster at an Islamic boarding school in Yala. He is suspected of recruiting and arming some of the youths involved in the attacks.

Thai police say Muslim separatists with foreign connections may be behind the violence in the south. But Prime Minister Thaksin has stressed he believes criminal elements are stirring trouble under the guise of religious ideology.

Carl Thayer, a professor of Southeast Asia politics at Australian Defence Force Academy, says it may be a combination of factors.

"You have a murky situation in southern Thailand where some of the groups with political title are cover for criminal elements, and there is a blurring between the two and it is hard analytically to separate one group out from the other," said prof. Thayer.

Security has been stepped up in recent days with almost 4,000 troops sent to the provinces. The recent violence is the worst since a separatist movement in the 1970s and 1980s faded after increased security and a program of amnesties.