PATTANI — Six public schools in were severely damaged in a coordinated arson attack in the restive Southern province of Pattani last night, though no one was killed or injured in the incident.
The torching took place at around 2:30 am early Sunday morning. Locals and volunteer security units were forced to extinguish the flames on their own as firefighters struggled to contain the fire at all six locations.
Thai authorities have blamed the incident on the Islamic separatists who have been staging attacks on security forces and civilians in the region since 2004. Over the past decade, there have been hundreds of suspected insurgent attacks on public schools and teachers.
Pol.Lt. Kamlart Tuetisorn, a police officer at Ma Yor Police Station, said 10 insurgents were spotted entering one of the schools, Baan Ka Soe Elementary School, and dousing the place with benzine before setting it on fire and fleeing the scene.
Police have yet to identify which insurgent group was behind the attack, but the perpetrators appeared to be intent on destroying the schools rather than harming officials, said Pol Lt. Somphot Suwanrat, deputy governor of Pattani.
"Before they staged the [attacks], they rounded up the guards and tied their hands and feet," Pol. Lt. Somphot said.
The deputy governor said he believes members of the separatist groups burned the schools in response to the recent killing of a high-profile militant insurgent by security officers in Pattani.
Government officials, including spokesperson of the military junta, Col. Winthai Suwaree, said the armed forces will quickly investigate the incident.
The Ministry of Education has dispatched urgent aid to students and teachers who were affected by the torching, said Kamol Rodklai, sec-gen of the Office of Basic Education Commission. Officials will provide temporary tents and school materials while repairs are being done, which he estimated would take "5-7 months."
Pattani is a hotbed of separatist violence that has claimed the lives of more than 5,000 peoples over the past decade. Known as the "Deep South," Pattani and the two other southern provinces of Yala and Narathiwat are home to many Muslims, a stark contrast to the Buddhist population that dominates the rest of the country.
A variety of shadowy Islamist groups are believed to be responsible for the violent campaign, which is aimed at establishing an independent state comprised of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, provinces that were incorporated into modern-day Thailand in 1902.
To combat the tide of separatist attacks, Thai authorities have deployed tens of thousands of security officers in the three provinces. The state's security forces have been occasionally accused of employing excessive force and abuse in their peacekeeping operations, causing a sense of distrust between authorities and local residents.
Yesterday a volunteer ranger opened fire with an AK-47 rifle at his own squad during a mission inside Wat Santikararm Temple, Pattani, killing two fellow rangers and seriously injuring another.
Police say the ranger, Thopsak Srira of the Ranger's 2212 Company, committed the crime "out of stress" resulting from his deployment.
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