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Apr 13, 2:17 AM EDT

Thai police suspect Muslim rebels behind southern killings


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HAT YAI, Thailand (AP) -- Police suspect Muslim separatists are behind six killings in Thailand's far south that have come as the country celebrates its traditional New Year.

Two rubber farmers were shot dead on their plantation in Yala province on Monday, and four people in two neighboring houses were killed Sunday night in Narathiwat province.

More than 5,000 people have been killed in Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani provinces since an Islamic separatist insurgency erupted in 2004.

Authorities are still investigating the attacks, but police Lt. Weerachai Parnnu said they believe they were carried out by Muslim insurgents because intelligence indicated there would be attacks on Buddhists during the New Year festival, known as Songkran.

Thailand's three southernmost provinces are the only ones with Muslim majorities in the predominantly Buddhist country.

On Friday night, just ahead of the holiday, a powerful car bomb exploded at a shopping mall on the southern resort island of Samui, injuring 12 people. Samui is outside the insurgents' normal area of operations, and Thailand's military government said evidence suggests that political foes of the junta might be behind the attack.

However, the car bomb was concealed in a pickup truck stolen in Yala, and the bomb was of a type used in many attacks in the deep south.

Police have also speculated that local, personal grudges might be behind the incident in Samui.

In Monday's attack in Yala's Yaha district, a 54-year-old man and his 52-year-old wife were killed by gunfire from an unknown number of attackers while the couple were working on their farm, said police Col. Paphonwat Khattiyawaranant.

Sunday's attacks in Narathiwat's Sukhirin district targeted two houses about 150 meters (yards) from each other, said Lt. Weerachai. He said an initial investigation showed an unknown number of attackers in a pickup truck and on two motorcycles drove up to the two houses and opened fire on the occupants with assault rifles.

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