BANGKOK (AFP) - The United Nations condemned insurgents in Thailand's deep south on Wednesday (March 16) for seizing a hospital during a recent attack on security forces in the violence-plagued Muslim majority region.
The assault was one of several small-scale but coordinated attacks on Thai forces in the region on Sunday night, following a recent surge in violence by insurgents.
More than 6,500 people - mostly civilians - have been killed in a 12-year revolt by rebels seeking greater autonomy from majority-Buddhist Thailand, which annexed the culturally distinct region more than a century ago.
Both the insurgents and the military have been accused of widespread rights abuses.
In one of Sunday's attacks, a group of rebel fighters took over the Cho Ai Rong Hospital in Narathiwat province and used the building to fire on a nearby Thai army post.
The gunfight lasted around 30 minutes and, while nobody was killed, patients and medical staff were inside the building during the fighting.
Security footage aired by local media showed black-clad militants swarm the hospital grounds toting assault rifles.
"Hospitals, medical units and medical personnel are protected under international humanitarian law, and they should not be targeted or used for military purposes at any time," the UN Human Rights Office for South-East Asia (OHCHR) said in a statement.
The UN added that while attacks on medical staff in Thailand's south have taken place, some of them fatal, Sunday's assault was believed to be the first time insurgents had seized a hospital.
"This new tactic is deeply concerning," said Laurent Meillan, OHCHR's acting regional head.
Violence dipped to a record low last year, something the Thai military says is the result of better intelligence-led operations since it took power in 2014.
But there has been an increase in attacks in the past few weeks.
On Tuesday a female army ranger was fatally shot by suspected insurgents while she was shopping at a local market in neighbouring Pattani province.
Over the years Islamist militants have employed brutal tactics including shootings, beheadings and bombings, often targeting perceived civilian collaborators such as teachers and even Buddhist monks.
But the Thai military also stands accused of routinely violating human rights, including torture and extra-judicial killings, something rights groups say has worsened under junta rule.
The military's promise to hold peace talks with the insurgents has also borne little fruit so far.
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.