NARATHIWAT, Thailand (AFP) - Two state employees were killed in a drive-by shooting Wednesday in the kingdom’s conflict-hit deep south, police said, as rebel violence undercuts government claims of progress towards ending a 12-year insurgency.
More than 6,500 people have died -- the majority civilians -- since 2004 in fighting between publicity-shy Malay Muslim rebels and Thai security forces who blanket the area.
Thailand annexed the culturally distinct zone bordering Malaysia over a century ago.
Recent weeks have seen a spike in bomb attacks and ambushes, including one last week which left three police dead after their truck was forced off the road and riddled with bullets.
On Wednesday morning two Muslim men, a deputy village headman and a local security volunteer were shot dead as they bought rubber off-cuts in a so-called rebel‘red zone’ in Narathiwat -- one of the three southernmost provinces worst-hit by the violence.
“At least two people carried out the shooting,” Colonel Ruangsak Buabadeng of Rueso police told AFP.
“Both victims were government workers. It took place in area where insurgents are active,” he added.
Rebels routinely target perceived collaborators with the Thai state.
The drive-by came as Thailand’s deputy prime minister and junta number two Prawit Wongsuwon presided over a ceremony in Narathiwat welcoming the return of 650 Malay Muslims to the region.
The men had fled because their names were on government wanted lists.
Under the‘bring people home scheme’ wanted men are allowed to return to their villages without arrest if they renounce ties with the rebel movement.
Thai authorities say the scheme shows locals are wearying of the violence.
“There are almost 2,000 more people who have expressed an interest in joining the project,” Major General Kongchep Tantravanich said in statement at the ceremony.
But rights groups say many hundreds are wrongly on the state wanted lists simply because they are family members, friends or have loose connections with known rebels.
Once on the list they flee the deep south fearing arrest or even extra-judicial killings by shadowy groups known to operate in the region.
The Thai junta says it is on track to re-start full peace talks this year.
But observers say peace is unlikely while a tight security net remains over the region.
Critics also cast doubt on the army’s sincerity and the ability of their rebel interlocutors to control the revolt’s foot soldiers.