BANGKOK, Thailand – Suspected Islamic separatists set off five bombs and exchanged gunfire with security personnel in an attack Thursday in Muslim-dominated southern Thailand (search), killing a police officer and wounding 19 other people.
Regional army commander Lt. Gen. Kwanchart Kraharn said the attacks in the provincial capital, Yala (search), were well-coordinated and appeared to target civilians.
"The five points where the bombs exploded are places where people go during the night — a hotel, two 7-Elevens, near a restaurant and near the railway station — all of which are usually crowded with people, so we can say that the troublemakers targeted innocent people," he told Thai TV Channel 5.
Thailand has been facing an escalating insurgency in its Muslim-dominated southernmost provinces since January 2004. Almost 900 people have died in the sectarian violence in Yala, Pattani (search) and Narathiwat provinces.
At the start of the attacks Thursday evening, the militants knocked out a power station with a bomb, causing a blackout, said Col. Kitti Intason, a senior officer in a special task force for dealing with violence in the south. Electricity was restored to some areas about two hours after the attacks.
Kwanchart said one suspect was arrested with a weapon, but it was unclear how many attackers were involved. A police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press, said the authorities were hunting for "more than 10" attackers.
Kwanchart said about 100 soldiers garrisoned nearby were dispatched to city neighborhoods to protect people and government installations and public services.
He went on television Thursday night urging people not to panic and saying the situation was under control. The authorities earlier had broadcast warnings to city residents to stay in their homes.
"The situation is under control now, and the power supply has been resumed to some parts of town," he said. "I have ordered soldiers to give full reinforcement in the area to bring the situation back to normal."
The southernmost provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala are the only Muslim-majority areas in predominantly Buddhist Thailand.
A decades-old Muslim separatist movement in the region died down in the late-1980s after the government granted an amnesty. But violence surged again early last year, with almost daily attacks.
Government efforts to suppress the violence have been largely unsuccessful, and critics maintain the authorities' heavy-handed response is driving moderate Muslims to sympathize with the extremists. Southern Muslims have long complained of discrimination in employment and education.