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Thais Drop Peace Bombs On Muslims

Millions of folded paper cranes fluttered down from warplanes in the skies over southern Thailand Sunday as the air force completed a mission of peace aimed at expressing the nation's hope for an end to separatist violence in the Muslim-dominated region.

The gesture, however, failed to damp the unrest, with police saying they defused a 22-pound bomb Sunday on a crowded road where many people were waiting to gather the paper birds.

Encouraged by the government, Thais across the country — Cabinet ministers, office workers, schoolchildren and even convicts — have been busily folding the Japanese-style origami birds for the past two weeks.

The government claims some 120 million birds — considered symbols of peace and reconciliation — have been folded for the occasion, also meant to honor Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej on his 77th birthday Sunday.

The first birds were dropped at 9:09 a.m., an auspicious hour because the number nine is considered lucky in Asian cultures.

A festival-like atmosphere prevailed in many areas in the south, as children raced to grab the birds. Young and old alike expressed excitement at the prospect of finding the one bird folded and signed by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, which carries the promise of a scholarship if found by a child, or a job for an adult.

The military said more than 50 planes, including giant C-130 transports, were used to carry out the airdrops. A flyby of planes in formation pulled banners with best wishes to the monarch and left smoke trails in the colors of Thailand's red, white and blue flag.

More than 540 people have died this year in violence in Thailand's southernmost provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala — the only Muslim-majority regions in Buddhist-dominated Thailand.

Many security personnel and local officials have been killed in drive-by shootings and there have been small but frequent bombings of government offices and other public areas.

Authorities blame the violence on Islamic separatists, but government critics say a heavy-handed official response has made things worse.

On Sunday, a former prosecutor in Pattani province was fatally shot, although police suspected the killing resulted from a personal conflict.

Thai peace activists in early October came up with the idea of sending origami flowers and cranes to the south as a show of solidarity with the plight of the southerners.

Shinawatra adopted the idea after the government came under heavy criticism when 85 Muslim demonstrators died at government hands on Oct. 25, including 78 who suffocated or were crushed when they were stacked on top of each other on military trucks while being driven to detention.

Officials have tried to stir up excitement — and encourage people to help clean up a potentially huge litter problem — by specially marking some birds for prizes and offering rewards to people who collect large quantities.

While millions of Thais in other parts of the country took up the idea of the paper cranes with enthusiasm, reaction in the south has been mixed.

In Yala's remote Krong Pinang district, which used to be a stronghold of separatists, Yarodah Lasae picked up several paper birds, one of which carried the message: "Wish to See Peace in the South."

"I have long been waiting for this day and I'm very happy that the government and Thai people care for people in the three southern provinces," she said.

Others, however, were lukewarm about the mission.

Natthakarn Temasa, 41, a local official in Tak Bai, said her son was among those who died in the Oct. 25 incident.

"I am thankful for the moral support that has been given to us, but it is hard for me to get any good feelings back after one of my sons was killed and another injured," Natthakarn said Sunday.