YALA, Thailand Suspected Muslim separatists shot dead a Buddhist family of four in Thailand's deep south, police said on Tuesday, the latest attack in an escalation of violence in the region.
The killings followed a bloody raid on an army camp and a big roadside bombing in the past 12 days that were believed to have been carried out by ethnic Malay Muslim rebels seeking autonomy from predominantly Buddhist Thailand.
The bodies of the Buddhist couple, their daughter, 15, and 7-year-old son were found in a forest in Yala, one of three Muslim-dominated provinces bordering Malaysia where more than 4,300 people have been killed in violence since 2004.
Police said the family was missing since Sunday and had all been killed execution-style. The family owned a small rubber plantation in the Rueso district, a militant stronghold where Buddhists are a small minority.
"They were likely killed by Muslim insurgents to raise fear among the Buddhist families living in the area," Police Major-General Phoompetch Pipatpetchpoom told Reuters.
Experts believe the unrest, for which no group has claimed responsibility, is an ethno-nationalist campaign by Malay Muslims who say their identity, language and culture is neither respected nor fully understood by the Thai state.
The government has flooded the rubber-rich region with more than 40,000 troops to try to crush the rebels but they have made little progress and their presence is widely resented by people in the region.
The three provinces formed part of an independent sultanate called Patani until annexed by Thailand in 1909 as part of a treaty with Britain.
The sudden intensification of violence comes after the government hailed the success of security operations and public relations campaigns in reducing the number of attacks.
(Reporting by Surapan Boonthanom; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Robert Birsel)