NARATHIWAT, THAILAND (AFP, REUTERS) - Gunmen in Thailand's deep south shot dead two Buddhist monks and wounded two others inside a temple, police said Saturday (Jan 19), capping a week of deadly violence as the prime minister vowed to "punish" those responsible.
Black-clad assailants carrying rifles crept into Rattanaupap temple in Narathiwat province near Malaysia's border on Friday evening and started firing, local superintendant Pakdi Preechachon told AFP.
"The attack took place around 7:30pm (8:30pm Singapore time) when an unknown number of gunmen dressed in black entered the temple through a rear area via a creek," Pakdi said.
"Two monks were shot dead at the temple while two others were wounded."
As with most violence in Thailand's deep south, there was no claim of responsibility.
Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist country but Muslim Malays are a majority in three southern provinces bordering Malaysia.
The three provinces, and a small part of neighbouring Songkhla, were part of a sultanate annexed by Thailand in 1909. Separatist tensions have simmered ever since.
Since 2004 clashes between ethnic Malay-Muslim rebels and the Buddhist-majority Thai state have killed nearly 7,000 people, mostly civilians of both faiths.
The Thai military government has taken part since 2015 in talks brokered by Malaysia that aim to end the violence but that process stalled last year. Bangkok has signalled that it will return to the talks this year.
The death toll in the south dropped to a record low last year as Thailand's junta tightened its security web but violence has boiled over in recent days, raising concerns about soft targets at schools and religious institutions.
In the past, Buddhist monks have rarely been targeted. But they have been told to suspend morning alms collection starting from Saturday in three southern provinces and the southern army commander has instructed security officials to step up safeguards of Islamic leaders who could also be at risk.
Junta leader and prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha condemned the temple shootings. "The prime Minister denounced such a brazen attack and instructed officials to investigate and find the assailants to punish them," said government spokesman Buddhipongse Punnakanta.
Human Rights Watch said the "ghastly" assault on civilians in a place of worship amounted to a war crime. Last week, an imam in the same province was shot dead but it was unclear if the temple attack was related.
The Sheikhul Islam Office, a national representative of Muslim communities in Thailand, denounced the violence against the monks and expressed sorrow over the incident.
"There are no religions that teach people to kill innocent people, it's the work of some group of people who want to create divisiveness," it said in a statement Saturday.
Pictures taken in the aftermath show monks standing next to heavily armed Thai soldiers and an alms bowl inside the temple compound with bullet holes in it.
Friday's shooting came the same day as four security officials were wounded by two separate roadside bombs and an insurgent was shot dead in a clash near a school that sent students home for the day.
Four civil defence volunteers were also killed in a drive-by shooting outside a school on Jan 10 in the south's Pattani province, with security forces injuring a boy as they gunned down rebels believed to be responsible.
In a rare public statement dated Jan 4 the main Malay-Muslim rebel group - the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) - which has command and control over most of the insurgent foot soldiers, swore to "keep fighting".
"Siam (Thailand) can't hold out," the BRN wrote, signing off with a warning: "Do not help and support Siam."
Security analyst Don Pathan said the uptick in violence was connected to efforts from Thai negotiators and Malaysian facilitators across the border to "pressure the BRN ruling council to come to the table without offering possible concessions."