By Mariyam Ahmad and Matahari Ismail
As many as six separatist insurgents and a Thai army lieutenant were killed in a gunbattle Sunday in Thailand’s Deep South, where government forces have surrounded suspected rebels in a local swamp during the past several days, military officials said.
The bodies of four suspected Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) rebels were retrieved from the site of the firefight, which broke out in the pre-dawn hours and lasted till before noon inside a wetland in and around Hutaelueyo, a village in the Bacho district of Narathiwat province, a military spokesman told BenarNews.
“The insurgents opened fire at officials to break the encirclement and gunfire exchanges happened periodically, causing death to Lt. Krisana Petchchamrus, 38,” said Col. Kiatisak Neewong, spokesman for ISOC-4, the military’s regional command.
As of late Sunday, at least three rebels were still holed up in the area and government forces had not yet retrieved the bodies of two of the six BRN suspects believed to have been killed in the fighting, he said.
“We retrieved four insurgents’ corpses and sent them to a hospital at 6 p.m. There are about two more that we cannot take yet. They died in a thick forest and the area is not cleared yet,” Kiatisak said.
According to audio in a recording obtained by BenarNews from a source close to the BRN, at one point during the fighting, rebels could be overheard crying “Allahu Akbar” (“God is Great”) in Malay and saying they had run out of ammunition.
After the army lieutenant was killed in fighting before dawn, the sporadic shooting dragged on into the late morning, Col. Kiatisak said. At about 10 a.m., security officials sent a delegation of religious leaders, local leaders and relatives of insurgents to try to persuade the rebels to surrender but to no avail, the ISOC-4 spokesman said.
“There were other exchanges of fire and six of them died. We seized one AK assault rifle and two M-16 assault rifles, and captured one of them alive,” Kiatisak said.
Elsewhere in the Deep South on Sunday morning, two soldiers were injured when a roadside bomb exploded as they and other soldiers were patrolling on foot in Bannang Sata, a district of neighboring Yala province. They were deployed there overnight to inspect CCTV that rebels had allegedly tampered with, officials said.
The wounded soldiers were taken to a hospital with non-life threatening conditions, officials said.
In Bacho, Lt. Krisana was killed when a bullet hit his hard plate and then deflected into his head, Kiatisak said.
“He died on the way to a hospital. He is the second death on our side,” Kiatisak told BenarNews.
Kiatisak was referring to a soldier who was killed during a clash with rebels in the same area on Sept. 28, when a joint force of soldiers and police first encircled the BRN suspects in the 35-acre wetland.
On Tuesday, police said that an insurgent was killed during fighting in Bacho that day. But on Wednesday, military officials could not confirm this information although, they said, soldiers had spotted the body of an insurgent believed to have died in the fighting on Sept. 28.
The joint operation to catch the other BRN suspects, who remained holed up in the peat swamp, was going on after dusk on Sunday, officials said.
“Tonight, officials are manning the scene. We believe there are three more insurgents,” Kiatisak said.
“Their side might have run out of supplies.”
Also on Sunday, a defiant message posted on a pro-BRN Facebook page paid homage to the “six martyrs” killed in the fighting that day in Narathiwat, one of the mainly Muslim and Malay-speaking provinces of the Deep South where the insurgency has simmered for decades.
“We still have 5 people left,” the message, written in Malay, claimed. “We will continue to fight the infidel enemy of Siam.”
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, Thailand’s former army chief, sent his condolences to the family of Lt. Krisana.
The PM also ordered security forces in the troubled far-southern border region to be proactive in intelligence gathering and step-up efforts to prevent more violence by BRN rebels, who have intensified their attacks in recent weeks, according to Thai defense officials.
In mid-September, to the dismay of human rights groups, Prayuth’s cabinet extended a state of emergency in the heavily militarized Deep South for another three months. It was the 65th time that the government had granted the military emergency powers to carry out warrantless arrests in the border region, among other measures.
The extension of emergency powers came after the BRN – the largest and most powerful of rebel groups in the Deep South – apparently renewed a call to arms in early September.
A message linked to BRN and posted on Facebook on Sept. 6 urged combatants to “resume self-defense operations” because, it alleged, “Siam’s security forces set up raids and conducted summary executions despite COVID difficulties.”
Nani Yusof contributed to this report from Washington.