PATTANI, Thailand (Reuters) - Suspected Muslim rebels in southern Thailand killed four people, including a nine-year-old boy, on Thursday, police said, adding the attack may have been in reprisal for the killing of some Muslim boys.
Thailand is a mainly Buddhist country, but the three southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat are majority-Muslim and resistance to central government rule has existed there for decades, resurfacing violently in 2004.
Four rebels riding two motorcycles opened fire on villagers giving alms to Buddhist monks in Mae Lan district of Pattani province, killing two women, a Buddhist monk and the boy, police said. Seven other people were injured.
"This was a revenge attack," Pattani chief of police Phot Suaysuwan told Reuters. "We believe there is a link between the killing of Buddhists this week and the murder of three Muslim boys last week."
Two Buddhist women were gunned down in two separate attacks in Pattani this week. Both were shot dead and set on fire.
Phot said the attacks were in revenge for the deaths of three Muslim brothers aged three, five and nine, who were gunned down in front of their home in neighboring Narathiwat province.
The boy's deaths had set off "a chain reaction", said Srisompob Jitpiromsri of the Deep South Watch think-tank.
"Emotions in the local community are running high, on both sides, and the insurgent movement has taken their deaths as an opportunity for revenge," he said.
"It will be difficult for the authorities to control the violence unless they can bring the boys' killers to justice."
More than 5,700 people have died as a result of the insurrection in the south since January 2004 and more than 40 have been killed since the start of this year.
The opening of peace talks with rebel groups last year has done nothing to end the violence. Talks between the state and representatives of major rebel group the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (the National Revolutionary Front, or BRN), now seem to have stalled.
A meeting set for December was postponed, officials said, as the authorities focused on protesters who had taken to the streets of the capital in a bid to overthrow the government.
The protests continue and a general election held on February 2 in a bid to end the crisis was disrupted, leaving Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra at the head of a caretaker government with limited powers.
The three violence-plagued provinces in the south were once part of an independent Malay Muslim sultanate until annexed by predominantly Buddhist Thailand in 1909.
Reporting by Surapan Boonthanom; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Alan Raybould and Clarence Fernandez