BANGKOK, Thailand – Nine Buddhists, including two policemen, were killed in a series of shootings in southern Thailand's bloodiest 24 hours since a government crackdown on a riot last week left 85 Muslims dead.
The slayings heightened anxiety Thursday among Buddhists over apparent revenge attacks in the mainly Islamic region, including the beheading this week of a local official.
"Buddhists are living in a state of fear because we find that the insurgents are now targeting us. They are exacting revenge on innocent Buddhists who have nothing to do with the ongoing violence," said Pairat Wihakarat, a teachers' association president.
The latest violence started Wednesday night with the shooting deaths of a police sergeant in the southern province of Songkhla and two civilians in nearby Narathiwat (search).
On Thursday, police Maj. Kaow Kosaiyakanon was killed when a man posing as a customer entered his grocery store, shot him and fled. Kaow, 53, of Yala, was the most senior police officer to be killed recently.
A gunman also shot to death a motorcycle salesman, 42-year-old Taweesak Monthong, and seriously wounded one of his co-workers elsewhere in Yala, police said.
Also Thursday, two railway employees were fatally shot while inspecting tracks in Narathiwat.
In Pattani province (search), a district official was shot to death while driving to his fruit plantation, and in nearby Songkhla, a Buddhist monk on his way to a religious ceremony was fatally wounded by a motorcycle gunman.
Police said they suspected Islamic insurgents were behind the attacks, but no arrests were made and nobody claimed responsibility.
Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, meanwhile, sought to play down a U.N. e-mail warning to its local employees of a possible attack in the capital of Bangkok, saying it was merely a precaution.
Noting that the world body was on edge because of fatal attacks on its personnel elsewhere, Surakiart said, "It is not a declaration that Thailand is not safe," according to the state Thai News Agency.
Since January, more than 400 people have died in the south, many in drive-by shootings by motorcyclists. But the violence has escalated since Oct. 25, when seven people were killed when police opened fire on rioters outside a police station and another 78 died later in military custody after being stacked on top of each other in trucks.
The government blames Islamic separatists for the violence while Muslim leaders cite discrimination and heavy-handed tactics by officials against the religious minority. Outside the south, most Thais are Buddhists.
On its Web site last week, the Pattani United Liberation Organization (search) urged Buddhists to leave the south and threatened terrorist attacks in Bangkok. The separatist group, however, is not thought to be directly involved in the recent violence.