Amnesty International called on Muslim guerrillas in Thailand's southernmost provinces to stop targeting civilians, saying Tuesday that noncombatants accounted for two-thirds of the nearly 5,000 deaths reported in the conflict since insurgents took up arms in 2004.
Bomb blasts or shootings occur every few days in a Muslim-dominated region along the Southeast Asian nation's border with Malaysia, and the London-based rights group said many of the attacks constitute war crimes.
"The insurgents seem to be attacking many of the very people on whose behalf they are ostensibly fighting, destroying their lives and livelihoods," said Donna Guest, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific deputy director. "Whatever their grievances, they do not justify this serious and systematic violation of international law."
Most of the violence has taken place in three southern provinces dominated by ethnic Malay Muslims who are a minority in mostly Buddhist Thailand. The area used to be an Islamic sultanate until it was annexed by Thailand in the early 20th century.
At least 4,766 people have died and 7,808 have been injured since attacks began nearly eight years ago, Amnesty said. While some civilians have been inadvertently killed by Thai security forces, the rights group blamed insurgents for most of the attacks, saying they had been carried out to spread terror through both Buddhist and Muslim communities.
Muslim militants have regularly attacked military targets, but they have increasingly detonated bombs in crowded markets and busy streets, planted mines on rubber plantations and carried out beheadings.
Among the victims, Amnesty said: "farmers, houseworkers, teachers, students, religious leaders, monks, civil servants, (and) persons with vague or tenuous affiliation with the security forces or counterinsurgency efforts."
Amnesty's report on the conflict, released Tuesday, surveyed the cases of 66 people killed in insurgent attacks and found that 59 percent of the victims were Muslims. Many were killed because insurgents believed them to be too close to the government or because they refused to cooperate, the report said.
The motives behind the violence remain murky, although the conflict is partly fueled by a perception that ethnic Malays are discriminated against by authorities in the Buddhist state.
Amnesty also said Thai authorities have arrested more than 5,000 people during counterinsurgency operations. Some had been arbitrarily detained, tortured and in some cases executed, the group said.
Thailand's Foreign Ministry said in a statement published in an appendix of the report that it does not condone torture or human rights abuses, and any allegations of wrongdoing "have been, and will be, fully investigated."
Thailand's government and Amnesty both say that not all of the violence in the south is insurgency related. Attacks have also been linked to the trafficking of drugs, weapon and people, as well as political conflicts and organized crime.