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Nineteen Muslim teachers held in restive Thai south

Written by: Staff
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BANGKOK, Mar 28 (Reuters) Nineteen teachers at an Islamic school founded by a top fugitive insurgent in the Thai south have been held on suspicion of involvement in two years of bloody separatist violence, officials said today.

The arrests would fuel more resentment among ethnic Malays in the mainly Muslim region, where more than 1,100 people have been killed in the violence, Muslim leaders and lawyers said.

Security officials in Bangkok said the 19 men were arrested under a controversial emergency decree which allows detention of suspects without charge for 30 days.

The teachers at Thamma Wittaya School in the city of Yala were arrested last week after they came back from a curriculum preparatory meeting on an island off nearby Satun province, said a Bangkok-based Muslim lawyer who is working on the case.

''Police and soldiers went to search their houses and arrested them after they came back from the island,'' Kitcha Ali-ishoh, who also works for a Justice Ministry-appointed agency to bring peace to the south, told Reuters.

''This mass arrest as a result of their meeting, which was not a secret, will affect students when classes resume,'' he said.

Thai schools are on holiday until in mid-May.

At least six teachers from the school -- founded by Sapaeing Bazo, the most wanted separatist leader with 10 million baht on his head -- have been killed since the latest unrest began in January 2004.

Security agencies have named Sapaeing as a leader of the BRN Coordinate, one of the groups behind the violence in the region, and say he is believed to be hiding in Malaysia.

Several teachers and students at Thamma Wittaya, a school of 6,000 students which teaches both Islam and general subjects, have been arrested previously on suspicion of involvement in the two-year insurgency, police said.

Security officials told Reuters the 19 teachers were arrested because other suspects had implicated them during police interrogations and some of these teachers were educated in Muslim countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.

''They claimed to have a meeting about the school curriculum, but why did they have to have it on a remote unknown island hardly ever visited by tourists,'' a Satun security official said.

A leading Islamic scholar in the region said arresting people on flimsy excuses would only raise more anger in a region which has seen bouts of separatist violence since annexed by predominantly Buddhist Thailand a century ago.

''I've told senior officials so many times that if they suspect someone, they should invite them for questioning, not just detain them with no charges,'' Yala provincial Islamic council chief Abdullahmee Cheseh said.

The government has tried many ways to end the violence and win the hearts and minds of the 1.8 million people in the region bordering Malaysia, from brute force to bombing the region with millions of paper ''peace'' birds by Air Force warplanes. But the violence persists.

REUTERS DKS BST1638

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