Fifteen men with alleged links to insurgents in the Thai Deep South were arrested Thursday, including two suspected of plotting attacks targeting New Year’s festivities in Phang-Nga province, a southern tourist hotspot located well outside the troubled region, police said.
The two suspects who were picked up in Phang-Nga were from Raman, a district in Yala, one of the provinces in the Deep South, and bomb-making material was found at their home, authorities said. The arrests of the 15 suspects came after Thailand’s army chief ordered a crackdown on suspected militants to safeguard year-end celebrations.
“We suspect they have links to Deep South insurgents who came here to do attacks during New Year,” police Lt. Col. Weerasak Srithong told BenarNews. “They initially denied the allegation but officials don’t trust them either.”
In Krabi, a province near Phang-Nga, the provincial police chief said his department had received intelligence that Deep South insurgents were preparing to attack tourist sites during the New Year.
“I ordered my policemen to search for suspicious men from Deep South and do surveillance on tourist sites, crowded areas and government establishment after I received reports that insurgents planned attacks on Dec. 31 evening,” Maj. Gen. Boontawee Toraksa told BenarNews.
Phang-Nga and neighboring Phuket island are among popular touristic sites in Thailand’s upper southern region that were targeted in coordinated bombings, which killed four people and injured more than 30 others in August 2016.
Soon after those attacks, a leader of a combat unit with Barisan Revolusi Nasional, the largest and most powerful of insurgent groups in the Deep South, told BenarNews that BRN operatives had carried out those bombings farther north. Officials privately agreed that Deep South rebels were responsible.
According to Weerasak, the two men suspects were detained at a checkpoint in Phang-Nga. When police later searched their residence, they found material that could be used to build homemade bombs, including a gas tank, nails and miscellaneous items. He said the two were not charged but transferred to a military facility in Pattani, a province in the Deep South.
On Thursday, in Yala and neighboring Narathiwat province, police also arrested 12 men on suspicion of being involved in recent militant attacks in Narathiwat. The suspects have not been charged but were being interrogated, officials said.
A day earlier, Gen. Chalermchai Sithisart, the army commander-in-chief, ordered a crackdown against militants following a series of recent attacks in the Deep South, including an incident on Dec. 17 when insurgents hijacked a double-decker bus and set it on fire after allowing its passengers to disembark.
“I ordered the commander of the 4th Army Region, Lt. Gen. Piyawat Nakwanich, to keep the peace and protect both Buddhist and Muslim Thais, during the New Year festivities,” Chalermchai, the army chief, told reporters, referring to the region including the Deep South.
“We focus on limiting insurgents’ movement and firearms,” he said.
A 34-year-old man has been arrested and charged over the bus attack in Yala, police said Thursday. Three other suspects remain at large, officials said.
Earlier this week, suspected insurgents opened fire at an army truck, killing one soldier and injuring three other soldiers and a civilian in Narathiwat’s Srisakhon district, police said. Two other soldiers were injured when their truck hit a roadside bomb as they rushed to secure the area on Tuesday.
In Yala province, a senior police officer told BenarNews that authorities were bracing for attacks from young members of insurgent groups.
“As far as I see it, the perpetrators planned coordinated attacks,” police Col. Chamroen Suwnachatree, director of the Ayer Weng police station in Yala, said Thursday.
“They practice doing violence before carrying out bigger violence. They also intimidate villagers and show off their capability that they can do anything at will.”
Since 2004, almost 7,000 people have been killed in violence associated with the insurgency in Thailand’s predominantly Muslim southern border region.
This week, Deep South Watch, a local think-tank reported that, in 2017, the number of insurgent-related attacks in the region had fallen to a 14-year low.
Malay-speaking insurgents in the Deep South are fighting for secession. Until the region was annexed in 1909, Buddhist-majority Thailand’s three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat were part of an independent Malay Muslim sultanate.