Thai security forces have been accused of torture and kidnappings in their crackdown on Muslim separatist violence in Thailand's southern provinces. There are fears the escalating cycle of violence will be difficult to break.

The Thai police and army, grappling with the worst separatist violence in southern Thailand in two decades, are being accused of extra-judicial killings. They also are blamed for the disappearance of dozens of people in recent months.

The accusations by Thailand's human rights commission come as fears rise that Islamic militants are preparing another major offensive, adding to a climate of violence that has gripped the region this year.

The human rights commission's recent report documents cases of suspects being blindfolded, beaten, strangled, electrocuted, humiliated and urinated on by official interrogators.

The report focused on five men the government accused of being behind a January attack on an army depot.

A Senate sub-committee carried out its own investigation into the claims. Senator Kraisak Choonhavan says the sub-committee reached similar conclusions.

"The investigation has concluded that these tortures have taken place in Narathiwat in a so-called safe-house, and that extreme duress was put upon prisoners to confess to something, which they say that they had no part of," Mr. Choonhavan explained.

The five men had been represented by Muslim human-rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaichit. Mr. Somchai raised the torture allegations, but then disappeared in early March.

No trace has been found of the lawyer, although arrest warrants have been issued for five police officers suspected of kidnapping him.

The majority of Thailand's population is Buddhist, but the country's southern provinces have large Muslim populations. A Muslin separatist movement has risen rapidly this year in what is one of Thailand's poorest regions.

More than 250 people have been killed since January. Many of them have been civil servants, teachers and Buddhist monks, gunned down on the streets.

But the violence has escalated since an April 28 attack on security posts by dozens of lightly armed militants. The military killed more than 100 of the attackers, including 32 who sought sanctuary in a mosque.

Dozens of people, possibly up to 100, according to human rights groups, have been kidnapped or disappeared in the southern provinces since martial law was declared after the violence started.

The security forces defend the use of martial law and tough tactics by saying that many southern residents want such measures to stop attacks by the separatists.

Mr. Kraisak says the government needs to halt the security forces heavy handed manner.

"We cannot afford, much less condone, extra-judiciary violence, because the situation will only deteriorate," he stressed. "The more violence you perform against the population, the more violence you get in response."

Jaran Ditapichai, a member of the National Human Rights Commission, says the climate in the southern provinces is akin to a "civil war" between Islamic separatists and the government's security forces.

Mr. Jaran says the efforts to halt the attacks and the response by security forces have led to a cycle of violence now difficult to break.

"It will not end. It will still exist or develop. It will not stop easily this time, because it is an international situation," he said.

The Thai government has announced major development programs for the southern provinces, and is developing a plan to rebuild confidence between the local people and national officials.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra concedes that the unrest and violence in the south continue, and although he thinks the situation has improved, it will take some time to resolve.