By Post Reporters
Military spokesmen have backed off claims that insurgents ambushed a pick-up in Yala province, but say the passengers provoked irregular troops into firing on the truck, killing two 12-year-old boys and two other 25-year-old university students.
Village defence volunteers attacked a pick-up truck carrying students and other passengers returning from a funeral on Monday, killing four people and wounding five, the army admitted yesterday. The shooting, in Yala's Bannang Sata district, provoked angry protests by villagers.
"It should not have happened," army spokesman Acra Thiproj said, adding that the incident was regrettable.
Col Acra said not all the passengers in the vehicle were students. Some were insurgent sympathisers and they had provoked the defence volunteers who were on duty.
The passengers were attacked on their way back from the funeral of the Khuen Bang Lang tambon administration organisation chief, who was shot dead hours earlier the same day.
The spokesman said the TAO official had not been killed by defence volunteers.
Three passengers died at the scene of the attack.
A fourth, 12-year-old student Sulgifli Rarana, succumbed to a serious head wound yesterday at Yala Central Hospital, a doctor said.
Several hundred angry villagers, mostly women and children, staged simultaneous protests against the shooting at three venues yesterday, demanding the government take action against those responsible.
Troops set up a road-block on a road leading to Bannang Sata district to prevent people entering the area to join the rallies.
Traffic cones and barbed wire blocked the Yala-Betong road. All motorists, including reporters, were prevented from using the section of the road between Muang and Betong districts.
Security forces feared the rally would draw people from other districts, which would make the demonstration hard to control.
"Just when we re-open the road will depend on our commander," said an officer at the scene.
About 200,000 Muslim men aged about 15 to 20 are under close watch by the authorities in the deep South. This follows reports that insurgent leaders have been trying to persuade them to join them.
Veerasak Thipmonthien, of the National Intelligence Agency, said they had been receiving the information from local informants and authorities on the ground since the beginning of this year.
"They told us that insurgency leaders have been sending their members to meet Muslim youths in every village in the three provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, as they want these people to be their youth allies," Mr Veerasak said at Government House.
Intelligence officials in the area and local authorities are working closely with local leaders and parents to help keep their youths in check. He said young people were vulnerable to brainwashing by insurgent leaders and were being used to stage riots and cause chaos in the region.
"They have been doing everything to make these Muslim youths distrust and hate state authorities," Mr Veerasak said.
Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont is scheduled to visit the deep South from April 18 to 20.
The cabinet yesterday resolved to extend the enforcement of the emergency decree in the troubled region for another three months from April 19 to July 19.
Interior Minister Aree Wongarya said the extension of the decree would make it easier for local authorities to question and arrested suspects.
In Yala's Muang district, Lek Pongsiriprapa, 57, was shot dead yesterday by suspected insurgents as he was driving his motorbike into town, police said.