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Three dead in Thai south night of violence
[BANGKOK] Three people were shot dead in a night of violence across Thailand's restive deep south, in apparently coordinated attacks coinciding with a visit by the new minister for the Muslim-majority region.
The assaults began late Wednesday and rippled out over a wide area in the following hours with shootings, arson and bombings as well as the unfurling of banners decrying Thailand, which colonised the region more than a century ago.
More than 6,600 people - the majority civilians - have died in a 12-year insurgency across the country's southernmost provinces bordering Malaysia as Muslim rebels fight for greater autonomy from the Buddhist-majority state.
Two security guards were gunned down in Songkhla, one of the four provinces claimed as a historic sultanate by the rebels.
"They were shot and killed at a car showroom," Lieutenant Colonel Pipop Chanapol of Songkhla police told AFP, adding the suspected rebels then torched the premises.
In another fatal attack a soldier was shot dead guarding an office for war veterans in Pattani province, police added.
Several people were wounded in numerous other shootings and small bomb attacks in Songkhla, Pattani and Narathiwat provinces.
Ethnic Malay Muslim rebels are suspected of being behind the violence, although they rarely claim responsibility, instead using fear and subterfuge to hide within local communities.
The attacks appeared timed to coincide with a day trip to the south by Udomdej Sitabutr, a former army chief, who was recently appointed minister for the troubled region.
Mr Udomdej, who is also deputy defence minister, is heading a newly minted cabinet for the region with a remit to bring peace.
But peace talks have sputtered.
The Thai side is unconvinced that the rebel representatives at the table can control the violence, while the rebels do not believe the junta will concede political autonomy anytime soon.
In that context, rebels are increasingly using force such as Wednesday's apparently coordinated action to try to undermine the Thai state and chip away at its reputation by spreading fear among civilians.
The near-daily insurgent attacks include car bombs and killing anyone perceived to be a collaborator with the government, including teachers.
Last Friday a 49-year-old Buddhist teacher was killed and her colleague injured in a drive-by shooting.
An army spokesman for the south played down the link between the latest violence and the new minister's visit.
"The rebels are retaliating as authorities are aggressively arresting their people," Colonel Pramote Prom-in told AFP.
"They want to destroy the economic lifeline of people in the south."
Thai security forces stand accused of widespread rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests and extra-judicial killings - although no soldier has ever been successfully prosecuted for murder.