BANGKOK, Thailand — The theft of a large stash of explosive material by suspected Islamic insurgents has sparked a terror alert in southern Thailand.
A group of about 10 men broke into a rock quarrying factory in Yala province on Tuesday, tied up two security guards and took the explosives away in a truck, The Associated Press reported a police official as saying.
He said 66 bags, each weighing 50 kilograms (110 pounds), of ammonium nitrate, 58 sticks of dynamite, 170 fuses and other objects were missing.
Lt. Gen. Thani Twibsri, the deputy commander of the regional police, said the theft was the work of terrorist groups “who must be planning a major attack and were running short of stock.”
Three southern provinces have been under martial law since gunmen raided an army camp in Narathiwat in January, killing four soldiers.
“[The theft] is the work of the same group of terrorists who have been creating the violence and causing trouble in the area,” Deputy Prime Minister Chaturon Chaisang told reporters.
“We have to admit that the more the government tries, the more (the violence) escalates.”
More than 50 people, mostly security officials, have been killed since the January 4 attack.
The worst single incident was a weekend bomb attack in Sungai Kolok that wounded at least 28 people.
No one has claimed responsibility for setting off the explosives, loaded on a motorcycle.
The spate of violence has become Thailand’s most serious domestic security crisis since the end of a communist insurgency in the early 1980s.
“The locals’ greatest fear is about security. Now people are afraid of everyone and they are growing distrustful of the police,” Chaturon said.
Islamic separatist insurgents are suspected to be behind the unrest, largely the result of disenchantment among the minority Muslims with the Buddhist government and the discrimination they face, experts say.
Muslims make up nearly 10 percent of Thailand’s 65 million people.
Gen. Pallop Pinmanee, deputy chief of the Internal Security Operations Command, told reporters Wednesday there were about 500 separatist insurgents active in the area and that their goal was to become a force of 3,000.
“The militants are increasing at an alarming rate. A few years ago they had less than four dozen,” he said.