SU SO, THAILAND The 19 members of the village soccer team seemed to have everything to live for. The youngest player was 18. The oldest was 26. The teammates were inseparable, whether they were playing on the field or praying at the mosque.
On Sunday, to the delight of the village, the team won the league championship game. But that was not the players' only engagement this week: On Wednesday, just before sunrise, the soccer team attacked a police station 15 miles from home.
|A few of the players carried guns, but most were armed only with long, machete-like knives.|
"I don't know why they did this," said a grieving Aryi Jeyno, whose son Sarapu was the youngest of the group. "All I know is my son really loved playing football."
Authorities say the soccer team was one of a dozen secret rebel cells that assaulted police stations across southern Thailand that morning. Police, who had been tipped off, killed 108 Muslim militants during the synchronized attacks. Five police officers and soldiers died in the fighting.
The rebels, who are seeking to create an Islamic state in predominantly Muslim southern Thailand, have staged scores of attacks in the area since January, killing more than 100 people and setting fire to dozens of buildings.
"It seemed like they wanted to die. I don't understand why they didn't surrender."
|The clashes demonstrate that Thailand, despite its peaceful image, is facing the same kind of threat from Islamic rebels as its more chaotic Southeast Asian neighbors, Indonesia and the Philippines.|
Police contend that they tried to talk many of the militants into giving up, but the separatist rebels preferred to fight to the death.
In the town of Pattani, 32 rebels who took cover in a historic mosque were killed when security forces fired automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades into the building.
"It seemed like they wanted to die," said one police officer who battled the soccer players at the police post in the town of Saba Yoi. "I don't understand why they didn't surrender."
In Su So, the villagers were in a state of shock Friday. Family members said they had no clue that their sons embraced the fanatic beliefs of the separatists, and blamed outsiders for brainwashing the players.
|Two months ago, the players left instructions that they wanted to be buried together.|
Two months ago, the players cleared brush from part of the Su So cemetery and left instructions that they wanted to be buried there all together. They even specified the location where each corpse was to be placed.
"They were preparing to go for jihad," Manat said.
The teammates liked to watch television news and comment on events in the Islamic world. Sometimes they would praise suicide bombings in Israel or Iraq and declare that Americans deserved to die.
Two days after their soccer victory, the players told their families they were going on a journey to serve God.
|On Tuesday, two days after their soccer victory, the players prepared to leave the village. They told their families that they were going on a journey to serve God.|
Shortly before sunrise the next morning, the team arrived at the police post in Saba Yoi. On this occasion, they were wearing the uniform of the rebels: red bandanas on their heads and camouflage pants.
Their apparent goal was to seize weapons from the police, as some rebels have been doing since January.
Two players wielding the long knives known as spata approached the station as their teammates including those with guns followed, the police officer who took part in the fight said.
Two days earlier, police had been warned that an attack was imminent. Even so, the soccer team's assault might have been successful but for the fact that the players charged the post five minutes behind schedule.
By then, the other rebel cells already had begun attacking other police stations and authorities had broadcast a radio alert. The seven officers on duty at Saba Yoi were ready when the soccer team approached.
|"It seemed like they didn't have much training."|
During the ensuing standoff, police used loudspeakers to urge the players to surrender. Police said the rebels refused. Over the next two hours, police picked off the teammates and by 8 a.m. they were all dead.
"It seemed like they didn't have much training," said the police officer, who declined to be identified. Police found Islamic tracts and garments in the players' backpacks.
Manat, the village chief, said he was called to the scene.
"All I saw were bodies lying around," he said.
In Su So, the battle left family members dazed and bewildered. Udom Meaprommi, a former village chief whose son, Kamarudin, was a member of the team, said the young men had kept their radical views from their families.
"They never told us anything, and they were always together," Udom said as he broke down in tears. "They didn't drink, and they never seemed to have any problems. It's very hard to accept."
On Thursday, the players were buried according to their wishes.
"We are very sad here," Udom said. "We never thought our sons would die before us."