Sun, Nov 07, 2004 - Page 5 News List

`Soft' Thaksin gets tough on illegal weapons in south

AP , BANGKOK

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra vowed yesterday to purge Muslim-dominated southern Thailand of illegal war weapons daily being used in deadly attacks. Three Buddhists, including a young student, were killed in the latest outburst of violence, police said.

Thaksin said he would travel today to the southern province of Narathiwat, scene of some of the most intense rebel activity, to personally supervise the operation.

"I will have to launch a massive crackdown on weapons. We will use both a soft approach and an iron fist to sweep out these people. Innocent people don't have to fear or worry," Thaksin said in his weekly radio address.

Thaksin's government has been sharply criticized at home and abroad for using strong-arm methods rather than trying to win the hearts and minds of the country's Muslim minority.

In an apparent spate of revenge killings, suspected Muslim separatists have targeted ordinary Buddhists, including monks, shopkeepers and students, following the deaths of 85 Muslims on Oct. 25 in a riot broken up by government forces.

Since the beginning of the year, more than 400 persons have died in the south, which has a long history of Muslim separatist movements.

In the latest attacks, a man dismounted from the back of a motorcycle, walked up to Dam Thongmuang, 72, and fatally shot him once in the head yesterday morning, said police Lieutenant Boonserm Klaewwathree of the Chanae district of Narathiwat. Dam was a former district volunteer, helping out during natural disasters and accidents.

On Friday evening, two men on a motorcycle shot and killed a 17-year-old vocational school student, Nattapong Wangmaetakul, as he was riding his motorcycle home from school in Narathiwat, said police Lieutenant Sukhum Sawadichart.

In the province of Songkhla, Wiang Kaewbangorn, 54, was shot and killed Friday evening, but no further details were immediately available.

Thaksin said the attackers were trying "to show that there is religious conflict ... killing Thai Buddhists every day."

He said the most current problem was the way authorities dispersed the mob on Oct. 25, when seven persons died of gunshot wounds and 78 others were suffocated or crushed to death inside army trucks.

"There may have been some mistakes in the way this was done, and we've set up an independent panel which is investigating this. This will make the truth clear," he said.

Thaksin said weapons stolen from the government were previously thought to have been illegally sold abroad, but authorities now believe "they're circulating around here."

More than 500 guns have been stolen this year alone, including hundreds taken in a Jan. 4 raid on an army camp that left four soldiers dead. Several tonnes of ammonium nitrate have also been stolen and used to make bombs, according to Thai officials.

Earlier, the government had repeatedly said that large numbers of stolen weapons and explosives had been sold to rebel groups in Indonesia.

"The people who are creating unrest, instigating the violence, are doing so to force the government to negotiate on the separatist issue. They can wait until the next life, but I'll never talk with them. I won't allow separatism to occur," Thaksin said.

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