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Thailand cabinet OKs new infantry unit
Updated: 2005-02-15 21:29

BANGKOK, Thailand - The Cabinet on Tuesday approved establishing a new infantry division of 12,000 troops to be based permanently in southern Thailand, where violence blamed on Muslim insurgents has claimed more than 650 lives in the past year.

The new division will add to the more than 25,000 regular forces already stationed in the three southern provinces, which are the only ones with Muslim majorities in Buddhist-dominated Thailand. Most troops currently stationed there have been rotated in from camps in other parts of the country.

The new division, to be based in the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, will comprise combat, medical, engineering, interrogation, communication and psychological warfare units.

Designated the 15th Division, it will be in place in two months and draw a budget of $229 million in the next four years, said Defense Minister Gen. Samphan Boonyanand.

Since January 2004, the area has been the scene of almost-daily shootings and occasional bombings, most targeting local officials and security personnel. The government blames Islamic separatists.

The military presence has failed to curb the violence, while alienating many local residents who see it as something akin to an occupying army. Many southern Muslims have long complained of being treated like second-class citizens.

"The (new) division will be different from regular troops as it will focus on reaching out to people and carry out development work for them as well as maintaining peace and stability," Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said Tuesday

Samphan said the army planned to give special training to personnel headed the south to "understand" their culture.

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