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PATTANI, Thailand (Reuters) - Suspected Muslim separatists shot dead five Buddhists in Thailand's restive deep south on Thursday, police said, the latest attack in a recent escalation of violence in the region.
The killings followed a bloody raid on an army camp, a massive roadside bombing and several drive-by shootings in the past two weeks that analysts believe was a political statement by Malay Muslim rebels seeking autonomy from predominantly Buddhist Thailand.
The intensification of violence comes after the government hailed the success of security operations and public relations campaigns in reducing the number of attacks.
The latest victims were sitting at an open-air tea shop on the roadside in Pattani province when a group of insurgents drove by in a pick-up truck and opened fire on them, said Police Colonel Naruecha Suwanmala.
Pattani is one of three Muslim-dominated provinces bordering Malaysia where more than 4,300 people have been killed in violence since 2004.
Analysts believe the unrest, for which no group has claimed responsibility, is an ethno-nationalist struggle by Malay Muslims who say their identity, language and culture is neither respected nor fully understood by the Thai state.
The government has flooded the rubber-rich region with more than 40,000 troops to try to crush the rebels but they have made little progress and their presence is widely resented by locals.
The three provinces formed part of an independent sultanate called Patani until annexed by Thailand in 1909 as part of a treaty with Britain. The region is just a few hours by car from some of Thailand's biggest tourist destinations.
Reporting by Surapan Boonthanom; Writing by Ambika Ahuja; Editing by Alan Raybould