Yala: Four Buddhist villagers were shot dead and their homes set ablaze in Thailand`s troubled Muslim south, police said on Sunday, the latest in a spree of deadly attacks blamed on separatist rebels.
The incidents all took place on Saturday night in the Bacho district of Narathiwat, one of three predominantly Muslim provinces bordering Malaysia where more than 4,100 people have been killed and 8,000 wounded in six years of unrest.
Police suspected the attacks were carried out by a group of about 10 ethnic Malay militants riding in a pickup truck and armed with M-16 assault rifles.
Among the victims was an 83-year-old man shot dead before his house was burned to the ground. The rebels then stormed another house nearby, shooting dead a 46-year-old man and his wife before torching the building, police said.
A 76-year-old woman was later killed in the same district in another gun and arson attack.
"We expect this is Muslim militants trying to evict Buddhist villagers from these areas," a police official said.
The incidents came amid a recent upsurge in violence in the once independent Muslim region, where Buddhists represent about 15 percent of the population. Symbols of the Buddhist Thai state are often the target of rebels believed to be separatists.
No credible group has claimed responsibility for the violence or stated goals or demands. A combined police and military security force of around 60,000 has failed to make any inroads toward quelling the unrest in the rubber-producing region.
According to official statistics, more than half of the victims are Muslims. Experts believe such attacks are aimed at silencing government informants or punishing Muslims for working for the Thai state.