BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) - The Thai government has blamed a decades-old separatist group for the flight of 131 Thai Muslims last week from the country's insurgency-racked south to neighboring Malaysia.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Sihasak Phuangketkeow said intelligence reports showed that 10 members of the Pattani United Liberation Organization, or PULO, sparked the exodus by spreading rumors in Malaysia about looming violence in southern Thailand.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra declined to give further details of the accusation at a news conference Thursday, saying he would let the Foreign Ministry speak for the country.
But he said Thailand would guarantee the safety of the Thai Muslims after they returned home.
It was the first time the Thai government has accused an organisation of being behind the flight of the 131 Thai Muslims, who left Narathiwat province last Monday for northern Malaysia's Kelantan state, where they are being detained.
The U.N. refugee agency said this week that its officers will interview the Thais, who say they are being persecuted by Thai security forces trying to quell a long-running separatist movement in the largely Muslim south.
Most Thais are Buddhist.
More than 970 people have been killed since January 2004, when rebels unleashed a wave of attacks in the three southernmost provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala.
PULO, which counted thousands of fighters in its ranks in the 1970s, was believed to have given up its armed struggle after a government amnesty in the 1980s.
But analysts recently have speculated that die-hard members may be orchestrating new attacks in the south.
In a statement released late Wednesday, Sihasak said the 10 insurgents in Malaysia spread rumours of impending attacks in southern Thailand so that Malaysians would tell their Thai relatives to cross the border and seek shelter.
He said the separatist group also set up a front organisation called the Patani Malay Human Rights Organisation and a Web site to alert the U.N. refugee agency to the 131Thai Muslims and urge the world body to intervene after the government introduced a new emergency decree in the southern provinces.
"PULO's move was aimed at tarnishing the country's image,'' Sihasak said. - AP
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