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Suspected Islamic insurgents behead Thai soldier, kill 7 more troops in rebellious south
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    NARATHIWAT, Thailand — Suspected Muslim insurgents ambushed an army patrol in Thailand’s restive south Monday, killing all eight soldiers and then beheading one of them in a bloody clash as the rebellion enters its fifth year.
    An army spokesman called the attack a reaction to what he claimed is the military’s progress in tracking down rebel leaders. But it was the second blow for the government in two days, coming after six suspected militants escaped from jail before dawn Sunday.
    More than 2,800 people have been killed the past four years in Thailand’s southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat and some parts of neighboring Songkhla. Many in the predominantly Muslim area feel unfairly treated by the country’s Buddhist majority.
    In Monday’s attack, the soldiers were on a morning patrol when a bomb hidden on the road exploded and flipped their truck over, an army spokesman, Col. Akara Thiprote, said. The attackers then fired a barrage of bullets, leaving no survivors, he said.
    The incident in Chanae district of Narathiwat province was one of the military’s worst losses in the past year. Last June, seven soldiers were killed in an ambush along the same road.
    An initial investigation indicated about 20 attackers were hiding in the brush along the roadside Monday, police Lt. Col. Chakkrote Nongmanee said.
    ‘‘One of the soldiers was beheaded. His head was found 50 meters (yards) away from the scene of the attack,’’ Chakkrote said. Akara said it appeared the soldier was already dead when he was beheaded.
    More than 30 people have been decaptitated during the insurgency, many of them civilians. The object appears to be to terrorize Buddhists into leaving the region.
    The insurgents do not issue public statements, but researchers who have had contact with them believe they seek a separate Islamic state. The region was a sultanate until it was annexed by Thailand in the early 1900s, and most of its Muslim residents are ethnic Malays who have more in common with the people of neighboring Malaysia.
    The degree of influence on the insurgents by outside Islamic extremist groups is still debated, though most experts agree the rebellion is home grown — an outgrowth of decades of disenchantment over misrule and discrimination by Thailand’s central government.
    Akara insisted the ambush was evidence the government has made progress against the uprising, saying a recent lull in large-scale violence stems partly from an effort to round up major suspects.
    ‘‘We have gotten close to some of the bigger suspects, and they are responding to that,’’ he said. ‘‘Every time we launch an offensive attack or round up some suspects, we see this kind of reaction.’’
    Srisompob Jitpiromsri, a political scientist at Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani, said the roundups had been successful but only ‘‘to a certain extent.’’
    Some of the rebels’ political leaders have been caught, but the military has not ‘‘been able to touch those who are in charge of military operations and bomb makers,’’ he said.
    Rebel attacks like Monday’s ambush ‘‘are meant to terrify people, and we see them from time to time,’’ said Srisompob. ‘‘But their main strategy is still to carry out small-scale attacks daily.’’
    Insurgents occasionally stage ‘‘symbolic attacks like burning of schools, beheadings and major bombings of soldiers’ vehicles to show that they still have their ammunition,’’ he said.
    The insurgency flared into bloodshed on Jan. 4, 2004, with a raid by unidentified gunmen on an army weapons depot in Narathiwat in which four soldiers were killed and hundreds of guns stolen.
    A subsequent government crackdown accelerated the violence, and the region was soon beset with drive-by shootings and small bombings. Most of those killed have been civilians.
    Little progress has been made in curbing the violence despite the presence of nearly 40,000 police and soldiers in the region and several changes of military leadership and strategy.
    Critics of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a 2006 coup, argued his government exacerbated tensions with a hard-line approach.
    But the military-installed interim government that succeeded him did no better after pledging to take a more nuanced approach that would not alienate southern Muslims.
    ‘‘The (government) operation in the area remains largely a military one. There haven’t been attempts to find a political solution or to get the locals more involved,’’ Srisompob said.
    A new national government is expected to take office within a month, but none of the parties that competed in December’s election offered any new ideas for curbing the violence.

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