Gunmen shot dead four civil defense volunteers who were guarding a school in Thailand’s insurgency-stricken Deep South on Thursday, authorities said of the deadliest in a series of attacks to strike the region since the start of the new year.
According to police, the gunmen who carried out the latest attack wore military-like uniforms as they approached the group of armed volunteers. A suspect was taken into custody after the shooting at the Ban Buko School, a public campus in Pattani province, officials said.
During the attack one student was injured from flying shattered particles and later taken to a local hospital, a police officer said.
“The assailants pretended they were coming for a visit and chatted with the guarding officials. But when the officials were careless, the attackers shot at them,” Pol. Lt. Capt. Wicha Noopannoi, an investigator with police station in Yarang district, told reporters.
The four volunteers died on the spot, while the gunmen made off with HK-33 rifles that each of the guards was carrying, Wicha said in describing the attack that occurred near noon.
The gunmen were separatist rebels, a security officer who monitored the assailants’ movements told BenarNews.
“Today’s attack is conducted by nobody else but insurgents in the area. We have intelligence that they planned an attack but we didn’t know for sure the target was this place,” said the intelligence officer who asked not to be identified by name.
Thursday marked the single bloodiest day of violence in Thailand’s southern border region since June 8, 2018, when five people were killed in a flurry of shootings in the predominantly Muslim and Malay-speaking Deep South.
Including Thursday’s attack, six people were killed and at least another seven injured in attacks carried out across the region since Jan. 1, 2019, authorities said. On Tuesday, also in Yarang district, suspected insurgents killed a man while commandeering his car, which was later used in a bombing that injured four people, including a 12-year-old girl, officials said.
‘I must stay strong for the two children’
During the latest incident, a local village headman said he first mistook the sound of gunfire for firecrackers.
“It was rainy. I saw people who were dead already while another two were injured but still alive. Not so long after that, they expired,” headman Sakariya Doloh told BenarNews.
“I felt sad. We were very careful. I never thought this would happen,” he added.
The wife of one of the slain volunteers said she tried to hold back her tears and not let them fall on her husband’s dead body as she cried over him in order “to keep him at peace.”
“I never thought he would leave me too soon,” the volunteer’s widow, Saynu Binmasae, told BenarNews at the scene of the shooting.
“From now on, I must stay strong for the two children.”
In all, about 10 gunmen were involved in the attack, and they left nail spikes on the road as they made their escape, said Wicha, the police investigator.
Soon after the suspects fled, another group of police in Pattani set up a checkpoint near the area’s famous Krue Se Mosque. After an exchange of gunfire between officers and two of the suspects, one of them was injured in the wrist but got away, while police arrested the second man, officials said.
The man was identified as Makri Esopute, a native of Saba Yoi, a district in nearby Songkhla province rife with insurgent activity, officials said.
The killings of the four volunteers took place against the backdrop of efforts by a new Malaysian facilitator and a revamped Thai negotiating team to inject momentum into Kuala Lumpur-brokered peace talks that began in 2015 with MARA Patani, a panel representing various rebel groups.
However, hardcore elements of the National Revolutionary Front (BRN), the largest and most power of the rebel groups in the south, have stayed away from the MARA talks, which have yielded no breakthroughs in aiming to settle the long-running separatist insurgency.
Last week in Bangkok, Abdul Rahim Noor, the Malaysian peace broker, told reporters that he had twice arranged meetings in Malaysia between hardcore BRN leaders and Udomchai Thammasarorat, the new head of the Thai negotiating team, but the rebels did not show up.
The Deep South borders Malaysia and encompasses Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala provinces as well as four districts in Songkhla province. Nearly 7,000 people have been killed in violence in the region since the insurgency flared up again in early 2004 after a long dormant period.