Thailand's prime minister yesterday angrily vowed tough action against killers of two marines in a southern Muslim village, calling the attackers cruel insurgents and dismissing critics who urge a measured response to the region's unrest.
The two marines were beaten and stabbed to death in Tanyonglimo village in Narathiwat Province after they were held hostage by villagers who accused soldiers of opening fire on a local teashop the night before, killing two civilians and wounding three others.
The military denied that the men -- armed but dressed in plainclothes -- were the shooters, saying they had gone to the area to investigate the incident, which officials blamed on Islamic insurgents.
Defense Minister Thammarak Isarangura said yesterday that police will issue an arrest warrant for three villagers suspected in the killings.
"Authorities have clear evidence that three men in the village cruelly killed the hostages. They planned to kill them by luring the officers and trapping them in the village," he told reporters.
Thailand's three southernmost provinces -- the only ones with Muslim majorities in the Buddhist-dominated country -- have been wracked by an Islamic separatist insurgency in which more than 1,000 people have died since January last year.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra blamed Wednesday's violence on critics of his hardline response to the insurgency, saying they had made security forces hesitant in taking decisive action that could have saved the two marines. Officials had sought to negotiate their release.
"So I want to warn the [critics] that these insurgents are cruel and engage in atrocities. Their behavior cannot be corrected so I am giving clear guidelines to authorities in the field to take tough action against them," Thaksin told a news conference.
Opposition party members, academics and some media have urged that Thaksin not inflame the situation by taking poorly conceived military action that might further alienate moderate Muslim leaders and ordinary citizens.
Last year, nearly 200 Muslims were killed -- some of them militants but others innocent bystanders -- in two separate incidents when the Thai military used unbridled force and brutal tactics, drawing sharp domestic and international criticism.
Some troops in the south want revenge, news reports said.
"I am furious. They killed my men. If I could, I would drop napalm bombs all over that village," Captain Traikwan Krairiksh, commander of the two slain marines, was quoted as saying in the Bangkok Post.
Villagers held Ensign Vinai Nabut and Petty Officer 1st Class Khamton Thongeiat prisoner overnight, and the government sent intermediaries to negotiate after villagers blocked security forces from entering the area, with women and children forming a human chain around the community.
On Wednesday, the two men fell under the control of a small group of unidentified militants, who beat and stabbed them to death, the military and witnesses said. Their bloody, battered bodies were recovered afterward by the authorities.
One villager, a 40-year-old rubber tapper who declined to give his name, said gunmen inside a car fired at some young people sitting inside the teashop on Tuesday evening.
Then, police and the two marines came by to pick up the spent cartridges, which villagers believed was done to hide evidence of the shooting, he said.