At least eight soldiers are dead after what authorities in Thailand say was an attack by Islamic militants in the country's south. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from Bangkok.

Thai army officials say the soldiers were ambushed after escorting a group of teachers to a school in Narathiwat Province.

Officials say a roadside bomb exploded as the soldiers' vehicle passed, then gunmen peppered the soldiers with gunfire, and beheaded the body of one of the soldiers.

It was the first major attack in several months on government forces in the south, where an Islamic separatist insurgency has killed an estimated 2800 people since it flared in 2004.

The government has deployed 40,000 troops, captured suspected militants, and restructured its operations in the region during the past year. In recent months, the number of large coordinated attacks has decreased.

But observers say the ambush shows that the insurgency is not going away. Professor Panitan Wattanayagorn, an expert on security in southern Thailand at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, says the military is bracing for more attacks.

"In the last few weeks, the militants have decided that they need to show their strength and they also want to captivate the minds of the public, making sure that the public will still support them. Public support for the militants has decreased. ... I think the militants are now trying to use terror and scare tactics to bring back support," the professor said.

The insurgents' support base includes Muslim ethnic Malays who resent domination by Thailand's Buddhist majority. Little is known about the rebels since they have never identified themselves or presented a concrete list of demands.

Human rights advocates say that while large attacks on military targets have decreased, bombings or drive-by shootings aimed at non-Muslim civilians take place almost daily.

Sunai Phasuk, a consultant for the New York-based group Human Rights Watch in Bangkok, says the political crisis surrounding last month's general elections in Thailand is largely to blame for the continuing violence.

"The situation in the south will continue to be the most pressing security agenda for the new government of Thailand, which sadly, because of the political turmoil in Bangkok, no one could really pay attention to the south," Sunai said.

The insurgency was rarely discussed as a campaign issue before Thailand's December 23 general elections. Parties have yet to form a government since the vote and the country's political landscape remains uncertain.

One analyst notes that the attack is a sign that whoever ends up governing Thailand should make the southern conflict a top priority.