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Hundreds Protest In Thailand's Restive South

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Hundreds of Muslims protested Saturday against rising violence and the military in Thailand's restive south, which is reeling from the deadliest attack against soldiers since 2004.

The protesters, mainly young men and women, rallied around a mosque in Pattani, one of three insurgency-torn provinces bordering Malaysia, and demanded the immediate withdrawal of troops from the region.

They were gathering for the third day and also demanded the cancellation of a state of emergency. Some 2,000 people demonstrated at the mosque on Friday.

"Senior local officials including the deputy governor and the provincial police commander and the military began talks with protesters," said a local official who declined to be named.

Army-installed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont called for a peaceful end to the protests but added the military would be ready to declare a curfew in the area if necessary.

The Muslim-majority south was hit by the worst attack against the military when 12 soldiers were killed in a roadside bomb attack and ambush by militants late Thursday in Yala.

Since Thursday, the authorities have cut off mobile phones in the restive region. Militants often use the phones to set off bombs.

In Yala, insurgents set fire to a public school late Friday. Others sprayed graffiti saying "Pattani Merdaka," which means "independent Pattani state." Six torn Thai flags were also dumped on roads in nearby Narathiwat.

More than 2,200 people have been killed in a separatist insurgency in the southern region since January 2004.

Violence has escalated despite moves by Thailand's military-installed government to build peace. The Surayud administration came to power after a coup in September 2006.

Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani were once an autonomous sultanate, until the Muslim-majority region was annexed by mainly Buddhist Thailand a century ago.

Separatist unrest has erupted there periodically ever since and has begun spreading to nearby provinces.

The military deploys some 30,000 troops in the troubled south and plans to send more soldiers in a bid to quell the ongoing violence.

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