PATTANI, Thailand -- Angry and grief-stricken villagers buried their dead yesterday, a day after Thai police killed more than 100 suspected Islamic militants, and the government braced for revenge attacks amid allegations of excessive force.
The widespread killings happened as police repulsed coordinated insurgent attacks at dawn Wednesday across Thailand's Muslim south. Bands of about 20 people each raided about 15 police outposts and checkpoints in the provinces of Yala, Pattani, and Songkhla.
Security forces shot and killed 108 alleged militants, including 32 holed up in a mosque. Five police officers were killed in fights with the suspects, most of them teenagers armed with knives or other bladed weapons.
"These people only had machetes," said Wahah Chemu, a relative of one of those killed. "The authorities should not have retaliated with weapons of war."
Wednesday's bloodshed was by far the worst in Thailand's recent history, fueled by longstanding discontent amid people in the south over the perceived neglect of minority Muslims by the Buddhist central government.
Ethnic unrest has been on the increase since January, and police said they were tipped to the attacks by their network of Muslim and Buddhist informers.
Shock at the sweep of the violence turned to anger amid speculation that police fired automatic guns and grenade launchers indiscriminately -- even at those fleeing and at innocent bystanders.
Vithaya Visetrat, a prominent Islamic cleric in the provincial capital of Pattani, said the crackdown could widen the scale of the conflict. "It is the beginning of the people's war," he said.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said the response "appears to have been disproportionate" and urged an immediate investigation. Washington also expressed concern, but did not criticize the government's actions.
In Bangkok, government spokesman Jakrapob Penkair denied that any unarmed people were shot, and officials pointed to what they said were a handful of leaders who were well-trained and armed with guns.
As relatives conducted Muslim funeral rites at mass graves, top officials and police were anticipating more violence.
Defense Minister Chettha Thanajaro said some 300 militants were still at large.