The so-called "development division" of 21,000 infantry, pilots, engineers, medical and psychological operations teams would supplement the 4th Region Army's 10,000 troops responsible for 41 southern provinces, officials said on Tuesday.

   

"We want soldiers to live on the soil of the three provinces, primarily to develop the region and befriend the people," Defence Minister Sumpun Bunyanun told reporters after the cabinet approved the 8.81 billion baht ($490 million) plan.

   

The cabinet's approval came a day ahead of a three-day visit to the area by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who won another nationwide landslide poll victory but not one seat in the three violence-racked, far-south provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala.

 

Unrest
   

"They won't be there for suppression," said Sumpun, referring to criticism that the government was resorting to more violence to fight unrest in which more than 500 people have been killed since January last year.

 

Thaksin has ordered security
forces in south to be proactive

The new division, a third of which would come from the western region and the rest would be new recruits, would be educated about Islamic culture before deployment, he said.

   

On Monday, Thaksin ordered security forces to be more pro-active in their efforts to restore peace in the south, where separatists fought low key insurgencies in the 1970s and 1980s.

   

Nevertheless, top security officials said the daily violence might not end during Thaksin's second four-year term.

   

On Tuesday, suspected insurgents detonated a bomb on a road in Narathiwat's Ra-Ngae district, one of the areas Thaksin was due to visit, aimed at a joint security patrol that guards teachers travelling to and from work. One soldier was wounded.

   

Another bomb exploded near a Buddhist temple in the province, injuring four villagers.