NARATHIWAT, Thailand (AP) — Marines fending off a major militant assault on their base in Thailand's violent south killed 16 insurgents in an overnight shootout, authorities said Wednesday. It was the deadliest toll the Muslim guerrillas suffered since more than 100 died in a single day nearly a decade ago.
About 30 militants wearing military-style uniforms attacked the marine corps base in Bacho district in Narathiwat province just after midnight Wednesday, said Capt. Somkiat Ponprayun, the provincial marine corps special task force chief.
The shootout ended with 16 militants killed and the rest fleeing, Somkiat said. The death toll was reduced from the initial figure of 19 given out earlier Wednesday by regional army spokesman Col. Pramote Promin.
He said the insurgents — most of them armed and wearing flak jackets — opened fire at the base and were counterattacked by the security forces. Authorities confiscated 13 rifles, 3 pistols and a pickup truck at the scene.
Somkiat said the marines who fended off the attack suffered no casualties, as they had been tipped-off by the locals and prepared for the assault.
"There have been frequent attacks this month, so every unit has been on the lookout. Officers have been assigned on a night watch at every base," Somkiat told reporters. "This week, residents in Bacho district have also informed the soldiers of small armed movement here and there, which put us on extra alert."
Fighting in Thailand's three southernmost provinces has occurred on a near daily basis since the insurgency flared anew in 2004, and more than 5,000 people have been killed. Security forces, as well as teachers, have been targeted by insurgents because they are seen as representatives of the government.
Muslims in the deep south, a Muslim-majority region in the Buddhist-dominated country that was once independent, have long complained of discrimination by the central government in Bangkok, and the insurgents are thought to be fighting for autonomy. But the insurgency itself remains murky, with militants making no public pronouncements on their goals.
The losses Wednesday were the most since guerrillas launched simultaneous attacks on police stations and checkpoints in the three provinces in April 2004, triggering clashes in which more than 100 militants were killed, 32 of them at the Kreu-Sae mosque in Pattani where they were holed up.
The Thai government has attempted to gain support from local residents and separatist sympathizers in solving the insurgency issues throughout the past decade, but progress has been slow. However, experts said the militant's targeting of soft targets such teachers and civilians might have made the locals turn to the authorities.
"Some sympathizers are now fed up with the widespread, unspecific killings from the militants because they, too, are affected by the losses," said Jaran Maluleem, a Muslim expert and political scientist at Thammasat University in Bangkok. "Still, the government must be able to explain to the public why this mass killing of insurgents is justified."
Cmdr. Thammanoon Wanna, who oversees the marine corps base, said the troops had braced for Wednesday's assault after authorities discovered a sketch that mapped out the insurgents' plans on a militant who was shot dead in recent days.
Regional army commander Lt. Gen. Udomchai Thammasaroraj said in an interview on ThaiPBS channel that the army has declared a curfew for the area within 5 kilometers (3 miles) of the base for Wednesday night into Thursday. Security forces have conducted searches to find the rest of the fleeing militants, some of whom are believed to have been wounded.
"The insurgents were uplifted because of a surge in their successful attacks in recent weeks, so this is a significant loss on their side," said Sunai Phasuk, a Bangkok-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. "From now, authorities will certainly have to be very concerned about their retaliation."
Narathiwat is located 800 kilometers (500 miles) south of Bangkok.
On Sunday, suspected militants killed five soldiers and wounded five others in two attacks that included a car bomb blast in Yala province that was detonated as a truck carrying six soldiers passed. The militants then opened fire on the soldiers, killing five of them, and took away the dead soldiers' rifles.
Officials from security agencies are scheduled to meet Friday to discuss safety measures for the southernmost provinces.
Associated Press writer Thanyarat Doksone contributed to this report from Bangkok.