Buddhist civilians have been the main targets during three years of violence in Thailand's southernmost provinces - Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat - which has left more than 2,000 people dead.

Arming civilians
 
Two Buddhist women were killed in a drive-by shooting late on Thursday, while riding a motorcycle in Narathiwat, police said. A school was also set on fire in the province.
 
"Buddhists are taking up arms for self-defence ... The government is happy to support them for such a purpose"

Surayud Chulanont, Thai prime minister
Several government agencies have provided guns to both Buddhist and Muslim civilians in the south to protect their villages.

But the increasing number of firearms and growing mistrust between Muslim and Buddhist communities has raised concerns of retaliatory attacks.

"Buddhists are taking up arms for self-defence," Surayud said. "The government is happy to support them for such a purpose."

Surayud and General Seriphisut Temiyawej, the national police chief, visited the region to look at the problems faced by police working in the area, a government spokesman said.

While soldiers are regularly rotated through the area, police are expected to take permanent postings. People considered to be government representatives - such as teachers, soldiers and police - are frequently targets for the violence.