By Surapan Boonthanom
SABA YOI, Thailand, March 19 (Reuters) - Suspected separatist militants on motorbikes killed three Buddhist women and wounded three in Thailand’s Muslim-majority far south as they travelled to work at a farm on Monday, an official said.
Four gunmen ambushed a pick-up truck carrying 19 workers to the farm in Pattani, one of three far south provinces where most of the separatist violence has occurred over the past three years, the official said.
"They blocked the road with motorbikes and attacked the truck with automatic rifles," Sanan Pongaksorn, head of Pattani’s Nong Jik district, where the attack took place, said in a statement.
The attack took place as General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, Thailand’s first Muslim army commander and leader of a September coup which ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, flew to the region where more than 2,000 people have been killed.
Sonthi told reporters after a security meeting in Pattani that he would send more troops and police if needed to a region where 20,000 soldiers are battling insurgents who never claim responsibility for attacks or publicise their demands.
His visit followed an attack by gunmen on an Islamic boarding school in nearby Songkhla province on Saturday in which three Muslim boys were killed and eight people were wounded.
Police blamed separatist militants for the attack but angry villagers accused Thai army Rangers, saying they did not believe Muslims could have been responsible.
Army spokesman Colonel Acra Tiproch said police and soldiers suspected the attack at the school was in fact an accidental explosion as a separatist bomb expert showed pupils how to make bombs.
"They didn’t want the authorities to get in to find out the truth," Acra said. "A lot of evidence must have been tampered with by now."
On Monday, 200 angry Buddhist villagers demonstrated in front of the Saba Yoi District office demanding the government get tough on militants while 300 Muslim protesters stopped police and soldiers from entering the village to inspect the school.
"Why do you please only the militants while the plight of the good people has been ignored?" a Buddhist placard read.
On Sunday, attackers shot dead a man and two women, all Buddhists, also in Songkhla’s Saba Yoi district where the school attack took place, police said.
The man, a rubber tapper, and a mother and daughter taking a break from work at a charcoal furnace were killed by gunmen on motorcycles, police said.
The insurgency in the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat — an Islamic sultanate until annexed by Bangkok a century ago — has shown no signs of abating since the coup and a government apology for Thaksin’s hardline policies.
Thailand’s overwhelming Buddhist majority was incensed last week after suspected militants killed eight Buddhists in an ambush on a civilian minibus.
A military crackdown would be popular with the Buddhist majority, even though the government installed by the military says it is pursuing a policy of reconciliation to restore peace.
"This government insists it will stick by reconciliation and peaceful means to resolve the southern problem," Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont told reporters on Monday. (Additional reporting by Patcharaparn Ekchokprasit in Bangkok)