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20/12/2006 | New group of Thai Muslims escape to Malaysia-report

Reuters Staff

Another 20 Thai Muslims have crossed into neighbouring Malaysia, complaining of persecution by the military in Thailand's troubled south, Malaysian state news agency Bernama said on Friday.

 

Nine men and 11 women, aged between two and 55, crossed a river border on Thursday night and told Bernama that harassment and torture continued in their homeland despite official talk of peace since a new government took power following a coup.

"The action is torturing the villagers who have been hoping for a better life after a new government was formed recently," Bernama quoted a spokesman for the group as saying.

"They trespassed into our homes and arrested whoever they suspected as terrorists without checking. They took several members of my family and we do not know where they are now," said the man, whose wife and three children were also in the group.

Bernama made no mention of the group making a claim of asylum with Malaysian authorities. An immigration department officials could not be reached for comment, and the local office of the U.N. refugee agency said it had no information on the case.

"There is no information about the whereabouts of these 20 people," local police chief Zulkifli Abdullah told reporters in Kota Baru, capital of Malaysia's northern Kelantan state, adding they had launched a hunt.

The Bernama report follows last year's flight of 131 Muslim asylum seekers from southern Thailand, where a separatist insurgency has killed more than 1,800 people since 2004. The 131 are still being held in a Malaysian immigration depot.

Thai Army and Foreign Ministry spokesmen said they were not aware of the new group, but a senior police officer said it was part of rebel attempts to discredit Thailand's new government.

The government was appointed after a Sept. 19 coup by General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the first Muslim to head the Thai Army.

Thai army spokesman Colonel Acra Tiprote told Reuters the flight of the 20 Muslims might have been caused by a campaign by security forces to end daily attacks in violence-prone villages.

"We have recently launched a blanket campaign to stop daily violence in four to five districts in the Muslim south. Searches have been made at road-stop checkpoints and suspects' houses, in which we have rounded up around 40 people," he said.

But a senior officer at Thailand's police special branch said rebels wanted to discredit Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, who has been handing out olive branches, including a promise that Islamic law be given a place in the region.

"We knew two months ago they were planning to flee to Malaysia in large groups, probably at 50-60 per one trip," the general, who declined to be identified, told Reuters.

Reuters (Estados Unidos)

 



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