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Thailand defends killing of militants

PATTANI, Thailand -- Thailand yesterday defended the killings of 108 suspected Islamic militants earlier this week amid growing evidence that an Islamic separatist movement largely dormant for years is reemerging.

Police said they found Arabic-language pamphlets calling for the creation of a Muslim homeland on the bodies of some of the dead.

''The militants had a clear intention to stock up firearms for their separatist operations," national police chief General Sunthorn Kraikwan said. ''This is a serious matter. It's a threat to national security."

The suspected militants -- mostly young men wielding machetes -- were killed Wednesday when they tried to steal weapons from police and army posts in morning raids across Thailand's Muslim south. Three policemen and two soldiers also died in the violence.

The killings have outraged many Muslims because security forces, which had been tipped off to expect the attacks, responded with heavy gunfire and apparent shoot-to-kill orders that critics said was excessive.

''We expressed regret for the high death toll," Foreign Ministry spokesman Sihasak Phuangketkeow said yesterday. ''But it was an action that had to be taken given the fact that the operation took place in such a swift manner" and on such a large scale.

The government also played down the possibility of a sectarian conflict in this Southeast Asian country that relies heavily on a tourist industry that attracts more than 10 million visitors a year.

Most of Thailand's 63 million people are Buddhists, but Muslims form the majority in several impoverished southern provinces.

A separatist movement, spearheaded by the Pattani United Liberation Organization, flourished in the area for years, but faded after a government amnesty. An umbrella group later emerged under a different name, and small-scale bombings and assassinations have been sporadic in recent years.

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