NARATHIWAT: Officials prepare a body bag holding the corpse of one of the four suspected Muslim separatists killed in an assault by Thai soldiers following a six-day siege in Yi Ngo District in Thailand's southern Narathiwat province. - AFP

NARATHIWAT: Six days of gun battles between soldiers and militants in Thailand's restive south have left six people dead, the military said yesterday, as troops hunt insurgents hiding in a swampy forest. Thailand's three southernmost provinces have been in the grip of a 17-year conflict that has killed more than 7,000 people, the majority civilians, as militants in the Muslim-majority region fight for more autonomy from the Thai state.

The pandemic had brought a lull to the clashes-often characterised as tit-for-tat attacks-but fighting has renewed in recent weeks. Thailand's 4th Army Region, which oversees the southern provinces, said yesterday that the military has been locked in gun battles with separatists in Narathiwat province since September 28. Authorities surrounded a swampy forest in Bachao district on Tuesday after receiving a tip that a group of suspected armed rebels were hiding there, said Colonel Keattisak Neewong, a spokesman for the southern military unit in charge of security.

"We lost our first officer in the gunfight last Tuesday," he said. "We continued to negotiate with them since day one with the help of local religious leaders but they have rejected the talks and kept firing." By Sunday morning, the group tried to escape, sparking a gunfight that left four suspected rebels and one soldier dead. The colonel added that there were still some people hiding in the forest. On Sunday, relatives of the two officers killed sobbed as pallbearers carried their coffins into a helicopter. The police and military have long been accused by residents of Thailand's so-called "Deep South" of heavy-handed tactics.

The region-heavily controlled by Thai security forces-is culturally distinct from Buddhist-majority Thailand, which colonized the area bordering Malaysia over a century ago. Relations between the Thai state and key rebel group Barisan Revolusi Nasional, which has insurgents on the ground, appeared to be warming in early 2020 when they met for the first time in Kuala Lumpur.

But the military continued to attack the rebels, said Don Pathan, a Thailand-based security analyst. "The military on the ground are still stuck in a zero-sum game approach," he said. By July 2021, the insurgents "decided it was enough and they wanted to go on the offensive," he said, adding there will likely be more retaliatory attacks to come from both sides. - AFP