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Thai Rescuers Executed Rebels, Witnesses Say; 'We shot faster' in firefight, official reports

By Seth Mydans, New York Times Service,
in International Herald Tribune
Thursday 27 January 2000

A mood of triumph in Thailand after the quick, clean end of a hostage standoff at a hospital was soured Wednesday by questions over whether some of the 10 Burmese gunmen had been executed after surrendering to security forces.

Local newspapers published accounts from witnesses saying that some of the hostage-takers had been shot in the head Tuesday after being told to strip off their clothes. One paper published a photograph of four bodies in their underwear, all of whom appeared to have been shot in the head.

The concerns were boosted by the fact that none of the hundreds of patients and medical workers who had been held hostage for 22 hours in the town of Ratchaburi had been hit by gunfire, suggesting the absence of any intense firefight.

Officials strongly denied that any of the men had been executed.

"A well-trained commando normally will shoot to kill, especially with a head shot, because if hostage-takers with dangerous weapons are not killed immediately they could still harm hostages," said an army spokesman, Lieutenant General Sanan Kajornklam. "No commando will target the body, because terrorists could be wearing bulletproof vests."

Military officials said nine of the hostage-takers were killed immediately within the main hospital building. They said the 10th attempted to escape but was gunned down on the hospital grounds shortly afterward.

The Thai military, meanwhile, said it had resumed shelling the hilltop base of the ethnic Karen rebel band, led by twin 12-year-old boys, that staged the raid from across the border with Burma.

Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, asked by reporters why not one of the hostage-takers survived, said: "The reason is easy. We shot faster than they did."

He added: "If some Thai officials had died in this operation, the questions would change to, 'Why did we send our officials to die?"'

The Thai police have faced criticism in the past for summarily executing people they arrest as criminals. This is not the first time that there were no survivors in a confrontation with security forces.

When the 10 bodies were displayed to reporters Tuesday, all were wrapped in white sheets knotted around the neck so that they looked like faceless dolls. Bloodstains suggested that at least some had been shot in the head.

Newspapers reported Wednesday that all 10 were then buried without further examination.

According to newspaper accounts, the dawn attack on the poorly organized gunmen at the Ratchaburi Provincial Hospital, 120 kilometers (75 miles) west of Bangkok, had been well prepared.

As many as 40 commandos infiltrated the hospital during the night dressed as patients or medical workers. They hid weapons in a kitchen and moved quietly among the hostages, telling them to turn off their lights and lie on the floor. Sharpshooters and observers with two-way radios took up positions on the perimeter. Reporters were moved away from the scene with the ruse of a news briefing.

At about 5:30 A.M., two percussion grenades at one corner of the compound created a diversion and signaled the start of the raid.

"Some of the hostages cried," according to an unidentified woman quoted in the Bangkok Post. "The rebels did not return fire. I thought they would just arrest the rebels because they had surrendered."

The newspaper quoted an unnamed hospital official who said she looked out from a hiding place and saw the police holding rebels at gunpoint.

"They were shot in the head after they had been told to undress and kneel down," she said.

The Nation, another English-language daily newspaper, quoted a hostage named Decha Yoowong, 32, as saying he thought some of the gunmen might have surrendered.

As they crouched together, he said, "the hostages asked them not to put up any resistance, with some of them agreeing to that." The gunmen then walked into a hallway, and it appeared that they were preparing to give themselves up.

"The commandos sprayed bullets into the room, shattering all the windowpanes," he said. "None of the hostages were hurt. None of us saw any of the terrorists being shot because it was still dark." Like similar reports in other newspapers, however, these accounts were displayed modestly on inside pages.

Interior Minister Sanan Kajornprasart, commenting on the gunmen's death, said, "They all deserved it, since they've brought much trauma and suffering to Thai people."

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