Southern Thailand hotel bombing spurs security warnings

Thai police target Muslim separatists in the recent spike in the long-simmmering violent conflict.

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Recent attacks in Thailand's restless Muslim-dominated south have rattled Thailand's new government, which called an emergency meeting March 21 with security chiefs. Two people died in a blast Saturday outside a luxury hotel in Pattani Province that is popular with Thai government officials, visiting foreign diplomats, and reporters. A separate attack Saturday was apparently thwarted when a car bomb exploded prematurely, killing the driver.

They are the most recent events in one of Southeast Asia's most lethal conflicts, and political analysts say the Thai government must sharpen its response to both the security threat and the longstanding grievances of Muslims in the predominantly Buddhist nation. A separatist insurgency in the south has claimed more than 2,900 lives since January 2004. Analysts say the violence has fallen, however, from its peak in 2007. Thailand annexed the area bordering Malaysia more than a century ago, and there have been periodic rebellions against its rule.

On Tuesday, unknown attackers threw a grenade into a mosque in Yala city just after morning prayers, injuring two caretakers, reports the Associated Press. Police blamed the attack on insurgents seeking to foment Muslim anger in the south, but said the grenade, which rolled off the roof and into the mosque entrance, wasn't intended to cause mass casualties.

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Bangkok's Nation newspaper said security forces shot dead a suspected insurgent and injured another during a dawn raid Tuesday on a village in Narathiwat. Three suspects fled from a house and exchanged fire with a joint police-military task force sent to arrest a suspect accused of carrying out bomb attacks.

The fallout from Saturday night's powerful hotel car bombing has reverberated in Bangkok, reports Agence France-Presse. Thailand Interior Minister Chalerm Yubamrung admitted Tuesday that he "had no idea" how to solve the conflict. He said the conflict stems from Muslim grievances over discrimination.

The US State Department advised citizens Tuesday to postpone trips to the south, as recent violence has shifted to public places where tourists may be at risk, the Associated Press reports.

An editorial in the Nation says that two bombs concealed inside a parked car blasted an outdoor terrace at the hotel, the CS Pattani, but a third bomb nearby didn't explode. The hotel was seen as a haven that had stayed clear of the conflict, and its owner was elected as senator in 2006 for the mostly Muslim province. The target appeared to be a blow to government officials, who have tried in past years to broker peace talks with exiled militant leaders.

Writing on Counterterrorism blog, Zachary Abuza, an analyst based in the United States, said the attack was not the first time that militants had used car bombs in the south, but was the first in over a year. Military counterinsurgent operations successfully stemmed a surge in violence in 2007 but killings remain above the four-year average.

Earlier Saturday, police found a burnt-out car parked near a school in nearby Yala, Reuters reported. The driver had died in the blast from two powerful bombs packed inside the car, and police speculated that the bombs had exploded prematurely before they could be used in a suspected terrorist attack.

Thai police believe that three teams of militants carried out Saturday's hotel bombing, says the Bangkok Post. Surveillance cameras at the hotel showed their movements on the night of the blast, and police have also identified the owner of the explosives-packed car. The provincial governor said the explosion had damaged the hotel, 24 nearby shop-houses, and more than seven cars.

In an editorial, the newspaper said Thai security forces must take the blame for the lapse of security at the hotel and, more broadly, for failing to calm the conflict. It also faulted Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej for not commenting on the bombing during his weekly Sunday radio address.

Bangkok Pundit, an unidentified blogger, says the hotel bombing is a symbolic blow to a safe haven that had been used as a venue by a government reconciliation committee. He says security forces need to search more vehicles but warns of limited resources for such scrutiny. He also asks raises the issue of funding for the insurgency.

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