Thailand barracks shooting raises soldier stress issue

BANGKOK (AFP) - Thailand's army chief has warned under-pressure troops deployed in Thailand's insurgency-stricken south need to be better supported, an army spokesman said Friday, after a conscript shot dead four officers before turning the gun on himself.

Ten years of war have left more than 6,200 people dead - the majority civilians - in Thailand's Muslim-majority southern provinces, according to conflict analysts Deep South Watch.

The estimated 60,000 security forces blanketing the area face near-daily roadside bomb attacks and ambushes from shadowy rebel groups who melt away into remote communities broadly opposed to rule by Thailand, which colonised the region more than a century ago.

A 21-year-old conscript from northeastern Thailand opened fire with an automatic rifle on Thursday in a barracks in the Nong Chik district of Pattani province, killing three low-ranking officers immediately, a spokesman for the southern region army told AFP.

Another wounded soldier died overnight, while the gunman remains in a coma in hospital after shooting himself.

"It's likely he (was) suffering from stress and a personal problem," Colonel Pramote Promin said, adding the conscript had only been deployed in the south for a month.

The killings prompted new army chief General Udomdej Sitabutr to order unit commanders to closely monitor the behaviour of the rank-and-file who work under tough conditions in the violence-wracked region, according to a second army spokesman.

"The incident happened because soldiers have to work under special circumstances," Colonel Winthai Suvaree told AFP, adding the spark may have been an argument with an officer.

"The army chief has told unit leaders to be closer to their staff and observe their behaviour".

Local media also reported General Udomedej deployed psychiatrists to the south after the killing.

While they are frequently the target of attacks, Thai security forces also stand accused of widespread human rights abuses of the culturally distinct predominatly Muslim population.

Those include killings of civilians in raids on suspected militant hideouts.

Thailand's ruling junta says it is ready for a new round of peace talks with several main rebel groups.

But observers question whether a military-led government is best placed to craft peace in a region where mistrust of the army runs deep.

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