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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 August 2007, 14:40 GMT 15:40 UK
Thai militants 'target civilians'
Boy surveys a Thai school that has been set ablaze 06/06/2007
The violence has continued for more than three years
The insurgency in southern Thailand is turning into a brutal armed conflict where the majority of victims are civilians, a leading rights group said.

Separatists intent on establishing an Islamic state are attacking civilians and schools, Human Rights Watch said.

The militants believe up to five more years of violence are needed before they are strong enough to negotiate with the government, the group said.

Violence in the region has killed almost 2,500 people since 2004.

Over the years there has been periodic unrest in the Muslim-majority provinces of Yala, Narathiwat, Songkhla and Pattani, annexed by Thailand a century ago.

But in January 2004, a raid on an army depot marked the start of a new level of insurgency.

'Violence and fear'

According to the report, entitled "No One is Safe: Insurgent Attacks on Civilians in Thailand's Southern Border Provinces", militants have been orchestrating a "broad campaign of violence and fear".

In the period between January 2004 and July 2007, they carried out more than 3,000 attacks on civilians, the group said, compared to about 500 attacks each on police and military units.

Map showing Thailand's southern provinces
Home to most of Thailand's 4% Muslim minority
Muslim rebels fought the government up to the mid-1980s
Suspected militants have upped attacks since 2004, targeting Buddhists
Security forces' response criticised by rights groups

In that period, 2,463 people were killed, 89% of whom were civilians, the report said.

Monks are also being targeted in a bid by the militants to end what they call a Buddhist Thai occupation, the group said.

"Separatist militants are intentionally targeting both Buddhist and Muslim civilians in shootings, bombings and machete attacks," said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

"Violence against civilians is being used by separatist militants to scare Buddhist Thais away from these provinces, keep ethnic Malay Muslims under control, and discredit the Thai authorities," he said.

The report identifies the insurgents as village-based militants called Pattani Freedom Fighters, who have formed a loose network called National Revolution Front-Co-ordinate.

Members have told Human Rights Watch representatives that "they are not interested in dialogue with the Thai authorities at present", but that three to five more years of violence are needed before talks can take place.

The Thai government has deployed more than 30,000 troops to the region. But they have been accused of rights violations such as extra-judicial killings and arbitrary arrests.

Human Rights Watch said it remained unclear what action the government would take "to end state-sanctioned abuses and the culture of impunity in the south".

The group called on both the militants and the Thai government to institute concrete measures to protect civilians.

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