"Militancy festers in Southern Thailand"

In southern Thailand’s violence-wracked city of Yala, weekend street markets still spring quickly to life the moment midday prayers end. Everything from giant leafy tobacco to recorded sermons from the Middle East are hawked off rickety tables propped up in dingy alleyways. Women mix iced coffee in smoky restaurants where old men dressed in austere, Arab- styled gowns congregate to talk about the latest news coming out of local provinces, Iraq, and the rest of the Islamic world. A few kilometers down the road, thousands of worshipers pour out of Yala Islamic College after listening to a fiery lecture by Ismael Lutphi, a Saudi-trained cleric known for preaching conservative Wahhabist doctrine.

As motorbike traffic bottles up around a railway crossing, Wamchai Chanchung, a member of the Royal Thai Police's Special Action Force, shifts his gaze toward a row of dilapidated houses on one side of the tracks where he and six other officers patrol each day. Fragments of glass cling to soggy frames that protrude haphazardly from the outside walls of darkened rooms. Chanchung keeps an eye on the windows and an index finger on his rifle's trigger.

"Over there," says Chanchung, pointing to the shadow-filled shacks. "That's where they could ambush us from." While nothing happens, the young security officer stands his guard -- watching, waiting -- as passengers board a train bound for Malaysia.

Aside from a handful of shoot-and-scoot assassinations in distant parts of town, Yala had been spared from most large-scale attacks since Islamic insurgents renewed their campaign of violence in Thailand's three border provinces in January 2004. A daring raid by gunmen on a Thai army weapons depot and the torching of two dozen government schools had triggered the latest round of conflict in the south, an area wrought with poverty and separatist activity. More than 3000 people have died in the small provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala, which are home to 90 percent of Thailand's 5 million Muslims.

Unlike two decades ago when the Pattani United Liberation Organization led the call for an independent Islamic country, no group has claimed responsibility for the now-daily assassinations of government employees, security forces, Buddhist monks and Muslims believed to be collaborating with the state in the region.

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