BANGKOK: Three Thai soldiers were gunned down in front of terrified shoppers at busy evening market in Thailand's conflict-riddled 'Deep South', police said Friday, in a day of of bloodshed undermining progress in peace talks.
An under-reported 13-year rebellion in the southernmost provinces by Malay Muslim insurgents against the Buddhist-majority Thai state has killed more than 6,800 people.
That toll rose late Thursday when gunman opened fire on the trio of plainclothes soldiers as they patrolled a night market in Mayo district of Pattani province.
"They were shot by seven or eight gunmen," Captain Muhamad Maadwang of Mayo police station told AFP.
"They had no chance to fire back, all of them were shot dead at scene," he said, adding that militants were suspected of carrying out the attack.
A $14,000 bounty has been offered for the arrest of the gunmen, local media reported.
Around the same time a 44-year-old Muslim man was killed in the same district in a drive-by shooting, police said.
Earlier in the day a family of four -- including an eight-year-old boy -- were gunned down early on a remote road as they drove to school, an attack that brought widespread condemnation.
Insurgents, who operate in tight and secretive cells, rarely claim their attacks.
But they are often carried out in retaliation for specific security crackdowns or at pivot points in peace talks.
The timing of the market shooting of the soldiers carried insurgents' hallmarks.
Thursday's violence comes days after the Thai army and the Mara Patani, an umbrella group representing some rebel factions at peace talks, agreed to create a limited 'safety zone' in the region.
The deal, tantamount to a highly localised ceasefire, was a small but rare step forward in years of stuttering talks.
But analysts have played down the significance of the 'safety zone' announcement, casting doubt on the Mara's control over the main rebel footsoldiers.
The surge in violence may point to dissatisfaction from the insurgents with the safety zone deal.
The Malay Muslim majority deep south was colonised by Thailand over a century ago.
Locals accuse Thailand of steam rolling their unique identity and culture as well as rights abuses.