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Muslims begin Ramadan fast; bombs hit Thai south

Muslims have begun fasting for the start of the Ramadan holy month in Indonesia, Malaysia and elsewhere around Asia, but the somber occasion was marred in Buddhist-dominated Thailand by two bomb blasts that killed one person and injured seven.

The Muhammadiyah group, Indonesia's second-largest Muslim organization, told its 30 million followers that Ramadan starts Friday. The government, however, declared the official start as Saturday, when most of the remaining 190 million Indonesians began the dawn-to-dusk fast.

Muslims in Thailand also began Ramadan on Friday, while Malaysians began Saturday. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were to start Saturday or Sunday.

The Muslim holy month devoted to dawn-to-dusk fasting, prayers and good deeds culminates with the three-day holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

Muslims believe God revealed the first verses of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad during Ramadan, which starts with the sighting of the new moon. The Muslim lunar calendar moves back through the seasons, so Ramadan starts 11 days earlier each year under the Western calendar.

The holy month started ominously in southern Thailand, the region where most Thai Muslims live and where an insurgency has claimed thousands of lives. The car bombing started fires at shops and residences and sent black smoke wafting from a row of four-story buildings in a commercial area of Sungai Kolok in Narathiwat province.

Seven people were injured, including four who were briefly trapped on the roof of a burning building, said police Col. Maitree Chimcherd. He said Muslim insurgents hid the homemade bomb in a pickup truck parked in front of a computer store.

On Thursday night, a roadside bomb killed a villager and wounded his companion while they were hunting for squirrels in the woods in Yala province, said police Col. Wichai Jaengsakul.

Still, residents of Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani provinces flocked to local markets Friday to shop for fresh and dried fruit including date palm to be consumed at dusk after the first day of fasting ends.

In Malaysia, where nearly two-thirds of the population is Muslim, people began observing the holy month by heading to mosques Friday night on the eve of Ramadan's start, with special Quran-reading and prayer sessions to proceed nightly throughout the month.

The start of Ramadan is often quiet in Malaysia, with excitement peaking in the final week, when people buy new clothes, food and other supplies to celebrate the end of the holy month.

Many hotels in Kuala Lumpur have begun advertising promotional dinners featuring roast lamb, savory curries and sumptuous cakes for more affluent Muslims to break their fast, while in numerous neighborhoods, entrepreneurs will set up evening stalls for customers to purchase cooked rice, meat and vegetables to bring home for their families.

Homemaker Karina Hassan said this Ramadan might be significant for her family because her 8-year-old daughter could try fasting for the first time. "She might try to fast for half a day at first," Karina said. "She's always hungry 24 hours a day, so fasting could be tough for her."

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak urged his country's Muslims to set aside their political differences during Ramadan and foster unity among believers. Political rhetoric and mudslinging has intensified in Malaysia over the past year ahead of national elections that must be held before mid-2013.

In Brunei, an air force helicopter crashed late Friday, killing at least 10 people, mostly military cadets being flown home after training. The sultanate's Borneo Bulletin newspaper called it "a national tragedy" that struck a day before the country's Muslim majority marked the start of Ramadan.

Ramadan's start varies because Muslim countries and groups use different ways of calculating when the new moon crescent is sighted.

Muhammadiyah, which uses calendar-based astronomical calculations, believed that the crescent should have appeared after sunset on Thursday. But the government argued it could not be seen by eyes or telescopes, hence Ramadan has to start Saturday.

Pakistan's government has promised there will not be any power blackouts during the key hours when people are preparing for their fast or during the evening when they pray and break their fasts.

"If there is electricity or no electricity, people do fast, and they fast with patience," said Shah Mohammed, who sells nuts in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. "Allah gives you patience."

In Bangladesh too, Ramadan is likely to start Saturday. However, a national moon sighting committee headed by state minister for religious affairs was to sit Friday evening to make an official declaration.

Parts of India, where about 13 percent of the 1.2 billion people are Muslim, started Saturday, including New Delhi and the Indian portion of Kashmir.

The largest Muslim rebel group in the predominantly Catholic Philippines said fasting there would begin Saturday.

A cease-fire has curtailed fighting and fostered peace talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in recent years. Rebel spokesman Von Al Haq said the guerrillas would observe Ramadan but still defend themselves if attacked.

The Philippine military traditionally orders troops to refrain from offensives that could disrupt Ramadan in the southern regions where minority Muslims live. Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda released a statement expressing solidarity with and goodwill toward Filipino Muslims in the holy month.

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Associated Press writers Sean Yoong in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Thanyarat Doksone in Bangkok; Muneeza Naqvi in New Delhi; Rebecca Santana in Islamabad, Pakistan; Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines; and Farid Hossain in Dhaka, Bangladesh, contributed to this report.