Sat, Feb 19, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Thai south hit by bomb attack

VIOLENCE Six people were killed in a blast that occurred shortly after the prime minister left the region, but he denied the attack marked a descent into civil war

AFP , BANGKOK

Thailand grappled with an alarming escalation of violence in the Muslim-majority south yesterday after an unprecedented car bomb that killed six people just hours after Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had left the region.

The bomb also injured 44 people, up to five critically, when it detonated on Thursday night inside a pickup truck parked next to a busy hotel in Sungai Kolok, a town on the Malaysian border.

"One of the injured died this morning at Sungai Kolok hospital," taking the toll to six, a police officer said.

The attack was the deadliest single bombing in a campaign of violence that has gripped the Muslim-dominated deep south for the past 13 months and claimed about 600 lives.

A small bomb exploded yesterday in neighboring Yala Province, slightly injuring two soldiers assigned to provide protection for teachers, police said.

But while the embattled premier acknowledged the unrest had taken a turn for the worse and was likely to continue, he refused to categorize it as a descent into civil war.

"The violence has escalated but not to the extent of a civil war," Thaksin told reporters in Bangkok.

"We expected this type of violence to continue for a while because security officers have not been aggressive enough" in their pursuit of militants.

His officers in the army southern command quickly announced a 100,000 baht (US$2,600) reward for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators.

The blast came just hours after the prime minister cut short a visit to the region during which he unveiled a highly controversial plan to block state funding for more than 350 "red zone" villages deemed to be prone to violence and sympathetic to separatists. Most of the red villages are in Narathiwat, the province where the blast occurred.

Thaksin said it was unlikely that foreign terrorist elements were behind the attack but admitted it was aimed at putting pressure on his administration.

"The perpetrators were the offspring of those [suspected separatist militants] with outstanding arrest warrants and their aim was to put pressure on the government," he said.

Narathiwat Governor Pracha Taerat said the pickup was laden with about 100kg of explosives and was detonated outside the Marina Hotel in an area crowded with open-air beer bars.

Analysts said the scale of the explosion and the methods used by the assailants marked a new and heightened scale in the violence.

"If there was a first [car bomb], there will be a second and a third," Phuvadol Songprasert, a humanities lecturer at Kasetsart University in Bangkok, said, adding that such a powerful blast was not unexpected.

Police said they had officially confirmed the identity of only two of the blast's victims.

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