BANGKOK, Dec 2: Thailand's security forces should be given expanded powers to detain suspects, tap phone lines and conduct searches to fight unrest in the country's Muslim south, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said on Thursday.

Senior police officials are pushing those ideas, saying they needed broader powers to stem escalating violence in the deep south where nearly 500 people have been killed this year. But opposition lawmakers and rights activists oppose tougher security measures, arguing it would only intensify the region's anger towards the Bangkok government. Mr Thaksin said any new law or amendment to existing security legislation must comply with the constitution.

"The law should be the same law used in civilized countries. We won't accept any dictatorial rules," said Mr Thaksin, who called a meeting with security ministers on Friday to discuss the issue.

Mr Thaksin's government is facing its biggest security challenge in the far south, home to most of Thailand's six million Muslims near the border with Malaysia and where separatists fought a low-key insurgency in the 1970s and 1980s.

The violence began in January when unknown raiders attacked an army base, killing four soldiers and making off with 300 automatic rifles. Martial law was imposed on much of the region, but gun and bomb attacks on state targets have persisted.

Nearly 30 people have been killed in apparent revenge for the October deaths of 85 Muslim protesters, including 78 who suffocated or were crushed in army trucks after being detained. Thaksin was criticized sharply last year for passing a tough anti-terrorism law by decree when parliament was not in session.

Critics said the law, which allows the government to probe and seize assets suspected of being involved with militant activities or groups, was unconstitutional. But the legislation, which carries a maximum penalty of death, was ruled legal by the constitutional court in February.

BUDDHIST TEACHER KILLED: In the latest violence, a Buddhist teacher was killed and another wounded in a drive-by shooting in the southern town of Pattani on Thursday. The two gunmen, wearing white shirts and black trousers, pulled up next to the car carrying the teachers, opened fire with a shotgun and fled on their motorcycle, witnesses and police said.

Police say they want more clout to carry out searches, detain suspects for longer periods without charge and tap private telephone lines without court warrants. "Laws should be flexible to maintain the country's security, especially when something unusual has happened like what we have been facing in the south," said Police Major General Thanee Thawitchsri, the top commander in the south.

"We need other options to tackle it," he said. A Thai newspaper quoted another southern commander, Police Lieutenant General Wongkot Maneerin, as saying police should be allowed to detain suspects for a week without charge to have enough time to gather evidence. The current limit is 48 hours.

The Asian Human Rights Commission has urged Justice Minister Pongthep Thepkanchana to reject any expanded powers for the police, arguing it could lead to more human rights abuses.

Thai and foreign rights groups have accused the police of extra-judicial killings in a controversial "war on drugs" which claimed more than 2,000 lives last year. The government says most of those killed were victims of warfare between drug gangs or killed in self-defence.

"Were the proposed national security legislation adopted, it would pose an enormous threat to the basic civil liberties of all citizens of Thailand," AHRC executive director Basil Fernando said in a statement.

The justice minister said the government would ensure that any legislation to strengthen the hand of security forces would not violate individual rights or freedoms. -Reuters

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