Suspected Muslim insurgents set fire to Thai rubber warehouse

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BANGKOK, Thailand (AP)

Suspected Muslim insurgents in southern Thailand set fire Wednesday to a large warehouse for rubber _ a cornerstone of the region’s economy _ with firefighters unable to control the raging blaze for hours, police said.

Smoke blanketed large areas of Yala province as more than 30 fire trucks struggled to douse the flames, police Col. Col. Phumphet Pipatpetphum said.

The fire followed a bold, coordinated assault by separatist rebels which killed eight people and wounded nearly 70 in a 24-hour period beginning Sunday night. Three people were arrested shortly after the attacks, Lt. Gen. Viroj Buajaroon, regional commander for the south, said Tuesday.

Police said suspected rebels set fire to the largest rubber warehouse in Yala, owned by the Southern Land Rubber Co., shortly after midnight and it was still burning more than eight hours later.

Phumphet estimated that more than 100 tons of rubber sheet had already been destroyed out of a total stock of about 1,000 tons. The rubber at the 8,000-square meter (2-acre) warehouse compound was being readied for export, he said. Rubber production is one of the few viable industries in the rural provinces of southern Thailand.

The army said the three men arrested after the Sunday attacks have admitted their involvement.

The attacks took place in all four southern provinces _ Yala, Narathiwat, Pattani and Songkhla _ where the militants operate. About 2,000 people have been killed in the area in the separatist insurgency that flared in January 2004.

Despite the arrests and increased security, suspected insurgents carried out more attacks Tuesday, including at least two bombings. No deaths were reported.

Viroj said it was still unclear which group was responsible for Sunday’s attacks _ which included 29 bombings within 45 minutes _ but the three arrested suspects had linked the violence to an Islamic militant group and given information about others involved.

He said some were trained by a group known as Runda Kumpulan Kecil, but declined to provide more details. The shadowy organization is believed by some terrorism experts to refer more to an informal network of separatists who allegedly received indoctrination and training in Indonesia.

The insurgents have not announced their goals, but are believed to be fighting for a separate state under Islamic administration.

Viroj said the suspects carried amulets and charms on their bodies and took narcotics and cough syrup to bolster their courage before carrying out the attacks.

The military-backed government has pledged tighter security.

The attacks occurred as thousands were celebrating Lunar New Year, and an army spokesman said the insurgents were trying to frighten ethnic Chinese who celebrate the holiday into fleeing the predominantly Muslim region.

Three people of Chinese descent were shot and killed that same night. Ethnic Chinese in southern Thailand are mostly Buddhists and Taoists.

The bombs weighed 3 to 5 kilograms (6 to 11 pounds) each, and the targets included karaoke lounges, hotels, schools, gasoline stations and power grids.

Violence in the south has been escalating in recent months despite a major policy shift by the military-imposed government, which is trying to replace the previous administration’s iron-fisted approach with a campaign to win over local residents. Muslims form the majority in Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani provinces but have long complained about being treated as second-class citizens in predominantly Buddhist Thailand.