Yala, August 5:

Militants shot dead five people, including two soldiers, in separate attacks and set public schools on fire in Thailand’s insurgency-hit south, police said today.

The Muslim-majority region has been hit by almost daily bombings and shootings since separatist unrest broke out in January 2004, which has killed more than 2,400 people.

Two soldiers were gunned down by militants in a drive-by shooting today, while riding a motorcycle in Narathiwat, one of three restive provinces bordering Malaysia.

Three Muslims were shot dead late yesterday when rebels ambushed their pick-up truck in Yala province, police said, adding two people were also hurt. In the neighbouring province of Pattani, attackers set alight three public elementary schools late yesterday.

Separatist rebels often attack public schools as they are seen as symbols of Thailand’s attempt to impose Buddhist Thai culture on the region.

Elsewhere, a soldier was wounded in a gun battle with militants.

Thailand’s army-backed government, which grabbed power following last year’s coup, has offered a series of olive branches in a bid to ease violence.

But deadly attacks continue to rock the region, which was an autonomous Malay sultanate until it was annexed a century ago.

Meanwhile, a report from Bangkok said Thailand will mobilise nearly 200,000 police and security forces when voters cast ballots in this month’s referendum on a new army-backed constitution, police said today.

They will be on duty as Thais vote in the kingdom’s first-ever referendum on August 19 at 87,000 polling stations across the nation, said Police General Vichien Potphosri. Vichien said authorities would provide extra security during the referendum in Thailand’s three southern provinces where separatist unrest has been raging since January 2004. He declined to say how many soldiers would be involved in the security team.