Warrant issued for 3rd suspect in bomb attacks on Thai tourist towns, as police point to Muslim rebels in south

BANGKOK (AFP) - A Thai military court on Monday (Aug 29) issued an arrest warrant for a third suspect in a spate of bomb attacks on tourist towns, all three of them Muslims from the insurgency-plagued south, the police said two of the suspects had links to southern Muslim rebels - the first time a clear link has been made to the insurgency.

Usmeen Katemmadee, a 29-year-old from Pattani province who was named on Monday, is wanted for bomb possession and arson over an attack against Hua Hin, where a double blast killed two people.

Two earlier warrants were for a man called Ahama Lengha from Narathiwat province and for a man named Russalan Baima from neighbouring Songkhla. Colonel Krissana Pattanacharoen, deputy national police spokesman, said both Ahama and Usmeen had previous links to the southern insurgency.

"The first suspect (Ahama) is directly linked with the insurgency by DNA while the third suspect (Usmeen) has had arrest warrants previously issued for the possession of firearms, explosives and some other charges," he told AFP.

He said it was not yet clear if Russalan was linked to the revolt.

No one has claimed responsibility for the bombing and arson spree, which hit popular resorts across the south this month, killing four and wounding dozens including European visitors.

But the attacks have heightened concerns the ethnic Malay insurgency may have spread north after years of stalled peace talks - a theory the country's junta has played down given the importance of tourism to the economy.

The attacks were highly unusual in a nation where western visitors are rarely caught up in bouts of political violence.

Thailand's military leaders have been keen to play down suggestions that the perpetrators could be Muslim Malay militants from the three southernmost provinces, where a local insurgency has raged for more than a decade.

However the police investigation has increasingly pointed in that direction.

Analysts say the leadership fears any admission that southern insurgents were behind the attack might harm tourism and raise questions over the military's ability to ensure security.

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

More than 6,500 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in 12 years of violence between the Buddhist-majority state and the shadowy ethnic Malay rebels seeking greater autonomy.

Drive-by shootings and roadside bombs happen almost daily, with a large car bomb killing two outside a hotel in Pattani on Tuesday.

Yet the violence has remained almost entirely local, with the militants wary of attacking foreigners for fear of sparking an international backlash.

The rebels never claim their attacks but factions are known to be frustrated with their lack of progress after more than a decade of fighting.

Rights groups accuse soldiers of widespread abuses, including torturing detainees and extra-judicial killings. The rebels also employ brutal tactics, including beheading monks and teachers.