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Published: Sunday February 2, 2014 MYT 1:00:01 PM
Updated: Sunday February 2, 2014 MYT 1:00:53 PM

Suspected Muslim rebels blamed for bomb attack in Thai south

PATTANI, Thailand (Reuters) - Suspected Muslim rebels in southern Thailand killed three soldiers and a district election official in a bomb attack on Sunday as a general election was being held around the country.

Police said the violence was not related to the election that has divided Thailand, with anti-government protesters and the main opposition Democrat Party opposing the vote.

Jatra Promkaew, an election official in Pattani province, was killed along with three soldiers after gunmen fired shots at a security checkpoint and set off three bombs, police said.

"Four people died in an attack carried out by a group of around 20 insurgents," Pattani chief of police Phot Suaysuwan told Reuters. "The attack was related to ongoing violence in the southern provinces and unrelated to the election."

Thailand went to vote under heavy security on Sunday in an election that could push the country deeper into political turmoil.

Ten people have died and at least 577 have been wounded in politically related violence since late November.

Voting was going smoothly in the predominantly Muslim southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, said national security chief Paradorn Pattanathabutr.

Thailand is a mainly Buddhist country and resistance to central government rule in the Muslim-majority provinces has existed for decades, resurfacing violently in 2004.

The opening of peace talks with rebel groups last year has done nothing to end violence in the south, where more than 5,700 people have died since January 2004.

The three provinces were once part of a Malay Muslim sultanate before being annexed by Thailand in 1909. Muslims in the area largely oppose the presence of tens of thousands of soldiers and armed Buddhist guards in the region.

(Reporting by Surapan Boonthanom; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Nick Macfie and Clarence Fernandez)

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