BANGKOK (Reuters) - Amnesty International on Tuesday condemned the indiscriminate murder of civilians by insurgents in Thailand's southern border provinces, saying the killings amounted to war crimes.
Nearly 4,800 people, mostly civilians, have been killed and thousands injured in the southernmost provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, plus parts of neighboring Songkhla since a long-running insurgency flared up in 2004.
"(The insurgents) have committed -- and are continuing to commit -- what amount to acts aimed at spreading terror among the civilian population, and which constitute war crimes," the London-based rights group said in a report.
Ethnic Malay Muslims form the majority of the population in the area, which was mostly part of a Malay sultanate until annexed by predominantly Buddhist Thailand a century ago.
The insurgents are thought to be pursuing separatist aims, but the various shadowy groups have rarely put forward demands or shown any interest in negotiating with the state.
On September 16, a triple bomb attack in Narathiwat killed six people and wounded scores.
The Amnesty report, entitled "They Took Nothing but his Life", detailed the deaths of 82 people in 66 insurgent attacks between November 2006 and June 2011 in three districts.
Most victims were Muslim, but Amnesty said the insurgents killed both Muslims and Buddhists from all walks of life, including rubber tappers, farmers, teachers, village headmen and civil servants, sometimes with their family members.
Many killings occurred at night, but some took place in broad daylight and in front of witnesses in places like tea shops and markets. Yet even when the killers were not masked, few witnesses came forward due to fears of retaliation, the report said.
The attacks have forced many Buddhists to relocate. Since 2004, at least 200,000 people have reportedly moved from the four provinces to Hat Yai, the capital of Songkhla, doubling the size of the city, Amnesty said.
The economy has suffered in the rubber-rich region, with a drop in tourist numbers and a fall in consumer spending.
"The government of Thailand has not been able to assert and exercise lawful control over these provinces," Amnesty said, adding human rights violations by security forces, including torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings, had further endangered civilians.
Easy access to guns added to the climate of fear.
An estimated 21,000 members of the armed forces are in the area, including militias set up to protect isolated settlements. Anyone employed by a state body may seek permission to have a gun for self-defense, which is rarely refused, Amnesty said.
It urged the authorities to tighten up on gun ownership, investigate crimes committed by security forces and move beyond a counter-insurgency strategy to address local grievances.
(Reporting By Thin Lei Win; Editing by Alan Raybould and Ron Popeski)