BANGKOK, Thailand — Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has vowed to root out “a ring of troublemakers” who launched a series of attacks on security outposts in the nation’s south that left over 100 people dead.
Gangs of machete-wielding youths, clad in black and wearing headbands stormed 15 police and security bases or checkpoints at dawn in three southern provinces — Yala, Pattani and Songkhla.
Police and security opened fire on the attackers. The government officials said a total of 107 insurgents were killed in the raids, while three police and two soldiers also lost their lives.
Later Wednesday, security forces using tear gas and rocket propelled grenades stormed a mosque in Kruesei they had surrounded where a gang had holed up, killing around 30 of the attackers, police sources told CNN.
It was not clear if those were included in the government’s toll.
Seventeen youths were arrested and 15 others were wounded, officials said.
Government officials told CNN that most of the dead in the morning raids were teenagers. It is believed the raids were an apparent bid to seize weapons and ammunition
More than 150 people have died since unrest began in early January in Thailand’s restive Muslim-dominated southern provinces, but Wednesday’s violence is the worst single incident to date.
The region is roughly 80 percent Muslim in the mostly Buddhist nation.
While some officials blamed the violence on Islamic insurgents hoping to establish a Muslim homeland, chief Thai government spokesman Jakrapob Penkair said the attacks were the work of gangs, including drug smugglers, trying to cover up their illegal activities.
“It looks like political maneuvering, [rather] than religious or ideological,” Jakrapob said. “Because the Muslims [in southern Thailand] are and have been very peaceful and moderate.
“They have no tendency of linking … themselves and the so-called Muslim extremist groups outside Thailand.”
Police have launched an investigation into who was behind Wednesday’s attacks.
“Local people trained to do these attacks and fighting, but we are seeking to find out who are the masterminds behind all this,” Jakrapob said.
Thaksin has called an emergency meeting to discuss the violence in the nation’s death.
Bangkok has so far blamed the trouble on local gangsters exploiting disaffected local Malay-speaking Muslim youths who feel few emotional ties to the predominantly Buddhist country.
But Thaksin vowed to smash the network of attackers, which he said were motivated by crime.
“We will uproot them, depriving them of a chance to allude to issues of separatism and religion. In the end, they were all bandits,” he told reporters.
Bangkok has been facing mounting criticism over its handling of the violence amid fears that outside terrorist forces could be stirring the trouble.
Last week, 50 government buildings were torched in a single night and fears are growing that Thai citizens may soon become increasingly drawn into the violence.