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Saturday, November 25, 2006

300 Thai schools to close amid attacks

Hundreds of schools in Thailand's restive south will shut their doors in response to increasingly vicious attacks by suspected Muslim insurgents against teachers and schools, a regional education representative said.

The closure, which begins Monday, affects all 336 primary and secondary schools in the province of Pattani, where two teachers were shot and killed by suspected insurgents in the past two days. In one of the killings, attackers shot a school principal Friday, and then set his body on fire.

"Teachers can't bear what has happened," said Bunsom Thongsriprai, president of Teachers' Association in Pattani. "They are paranoid, worried and afraid." He said the schools will reopen when teachers feel safe.

More than 1,800 people have died from violence in Thailand's three southernmost, Muslim-majority provinces — Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat — since an Islamic insurgency flared up in January 2004.

Teachers have always been occasional targets, seen by insurgents as representatives of the government they oppose and easy targets. But recently, attacks have been aimed at teachers and schools on an almost daily basis.

On Thursday, 96 schools across Yala were ordered closed as a safety precaution after a school was burned down the day before in broad daylight. It was one of several schools in the province recently targeted by arsonists.

The Yala schools were initially scheduled to reopen Monday but school authorities have decided to keep them closed until further notice, said Sanya Suwannapho, head of the Association of Teachers in Yala province.

Thailand's new military-installed government has pledged to make peace in the south a priority, and reverse hardline policies of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawtra, who was deposed by a coup Sept. 19.

Defense Minister Boonrawd Somtat said Friday that insurgents had stepped up violence to keep residents from accepting new peace overtures from the authorities.

"They have intensified violent attacks to intimidate and terrify people," Boonrawd said, adding that the shadowy groups behind the violence have not accepted government offers to hold talks.

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