4 militants, 1 soldier killed in clash in Thailand's south

BANGKOK (AFP) - Four militants and one soldier were killed in Thailand's insurgency plagued deep south on Wednesday (June 1), the police said, during an intense jungle gunbattle.

"There was a clash between militants and rangers this morning. The clash killed four militants and one ranger," a policeman at Janae district in the southern province of Narathiwat told AFP, asking not to be named.

More than 6,500 people have died - the majority civilians - since 2004 in fighting between Malay Muslim rebels and Thai troops and police who blanket the area.

Thailand annexed the culturally distinct zone bordering Malaysia over a century ago.

Bombings, drive-by shootings and executions occur weekly in the region, with little progress made in peace talks since the military seized power in Thailand in a coup two years ago.

After months of relative calm that saw violence dip to a record low last year, there has been a palpable increase in attacks over the past few months.

The insurgents are seeking greater autonomy from majority-Buddhist Thailand, which they complain has ridden roughshod over their culture and language.

The rebels employ brutal tactics including shootings, beheadings and bombings, often targeting perceived civilian collaborators such as teachers and Buddhist monks.

In April, insurgents briefly seized a hospital and used it to launch an attack on nearby troops during a night of multiple coordinated assaults.

The move sparked condemnation from the UN and a vow by Thailand's junta to tighten security in the region.

The Bangkok Post, quoting army officers, said two of the insurgents killed in Wednesday's gunbattle were wanted for their alleged involvement in that hospital siege.

The military also stands accused of routinely abusing human rights including torture and extrajudicial killings.

Rights groups say peace is unlikely while a tight security net remains over the region.

Critics also cast doubt on the army's sincerity and the ability of their rebel interlocutors to control the revolt's foot soldiers.