More than 800 heavily armed troops arrived in Thailand's Muslim south yesterday, where authorities are on full alert for possible suicide attacks after a bloody uprising last week, officials said.
The soldiers, mostly veterans of a peacekeeping mission in East Timor, will join a stepped-up security effort in the region after clashes killed 108 militants and five security men last Wednesday.
Police suspect the next wave of violence in the restive south could involve suicide bomb attacks.
"We have sent out warnings to security agencies in the region to be on alert and vigilant against possible suicide bombs after the Wednesday incidents," a police general told reporters.
More than 100 machete-wielding, suspected Muslim militants were shot dead during dawn attacks last week on security posts aimed at seizing weapons. Three policemen and two soldiers were also killed.
It was the latest and most serious incident since a Muslim separatist movement, dormant for the past two decades, flared up in January when raiders attacked an army depot and stole hundreds of automatic rifles and other weapons.
Violence persisted overnight when suspected militants fired three rounds of M-79 rockets into a security post in Yala province near the Malaysian border.
No one was injured in the Sunday attack, but a soldier was wounded when his patrol was ambushed in pursuit of the attackers.
About the same time, another group of suspected militants torched a remote local government office in Yala, one of three provinces under martial law, police said.
The army battalion, armed with M-16 rifles and grenade launchers, will guard schools -- targets for militants as symbols of government authority -- that are due to reopen on May 17.
"We are here to protect our motherland, to provide security to teachers and our sovereignty," said Lieutenant General Pisan Wattanawongkeeree, commander of the Southern Army Region, in addressing troops at the Pattani city railway station.
Another battalion is due to arrive in the south later this week, for a total of eight battalions deployed in the south since the troubles began four months ago.
Unlike the movements of previous decades, the new generation of militants in southern Thailand do not have public leaders or written manifestos and are generally not guerrillas in fatigues fighting in the jungle, officials in the south said.
One of the missions of the arriving battalions is to mingle among the local population in civilian clothes and sniff out signs of trouble, Pisan said over the weekend.
Since the January raid, the government has issued conflicting statements about the latest chapter of a conflict that dates back centuries, when the kingdom of Pattani ruled the south and parts of present-day northern Malaysia.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said yesterday investigators were making progress on who was behind last week's attacks.
"Our questioning of captured Muslims shows that some people have abused the religious issue, hiring people for only 300 baht each to use machetes to kill people with the promise that doing so would help them to see God," Thaksin said.
Thai officials said in March militants behind the renewed violence had taken refuge in Malaysia.
Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said on Friday his country was willing to offer refuge to Thais fleeing the trouble.