BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's U.S.-backed military regime is warning that Islamist insurgent infiltrators will try to bomb Bangkok and escalate their war for independence, which has killed 2,000 people in the past three years.

American military forces have boots on the ground in this Southeast Asian "non-NATO ally," and are currently involved in a fresh series of training exercises for Thailand's army, which seized power in a bloodless coup last September.

Bangkok expects America's annual multinational, Thailand-based Cobra Gold military exercise to be held in May. Previous Cobra Golds included anti-terrorist strategies for protecting oil platforms in the Gulf of Thailand and other targets.

America's smaller Exercise Cope Tiger 2007, specializing in air force training, was held in northern Thailand Jan. 29 through Feb. 9, involving 600 U.S. service members, plus 600 from Thailand and Singapore combined, according to the U.S. Air Force.

"Intelligence reports said a group of about 10 rebels from the south had infiltrated Bangkok," the relatively pro-coup Bangkok Post said in a front-page report on Tuesday (February 27).

"This group was believed to be preparing to launch a major attack in Bangkok from March 13 to 15," the English-language paper said.

"In Bangkok, Victory Monument is a target. Others are similar to those hit in the December 31 bombings," it said, quoting intelligence reports.

"We cannot control them, because they exploit the liberty of students to move freely about Bangkok," Defense Minister, Gen. Boonrawd Somtas, told journalists on Thursday (February 22), referring to Islamist insurgents who have kept their identities secret by not claiming credit for assaults.

"We have intelligence units to take care of this matter, but they might slip through our surveillance," Gen. Boonrawd warned.

"We do not know who is working against us. As long as they mingle with ordinary people, it's difficult to tell them apart," Gen. Boonrawd told the National Legislative Assembly the same day (February 22).

During New Year's Eve celebrations, nine bombs exploded in Bangkok killing two people and injuring 38 others, including eight foreigners.

The overnight blasts hit shopping areas, restaurants, Victory Monument's downtown traffic circle, and other crowded public places.

Insurgents unleash virtually daily assaults in the south, including beheadings, drive-by shootings, and multiple simultaneous bombings.

Since 2004, the death toll on all sides is around 2,000 victims.

Southern targets are mostly security forces, Buddhist clergy, Muslim collaborators, shops, nightclubs, rubber plantations, banks, and schools -- to make ethnic Thai Buddhists abandon territory to ethnic Malay Muslims.

The separatists' small, improvised bombs include chemical fertilizer and scrap metal, with a detonator linked to a mobile phone.

Escaping rebels scatter bent nails on highways, so security forces suffer flat tires.

Insurgents seek to create an Islamist nation ruled by ancient sharia laws, similar to Afghanistan's failed Taliban regime, within southern, ethnic Malay provinces which Thailand annexed 100 years ago.

"Government authorities must protect Thai Buddhists, before our land erupts in flames," a Thai-language newspaper, Baan Muang, demanded in an editorial on Monday (February 26).

Editorial cartoonists emphasized the military regime's failures.

"Where are you?" a gigantic, armed officer wondered in an editorial cartoon published on Monday (February 26), while gazing through a huge magnifying glass at Bangkok's pedestrians, workers and vehicles. Nearby, a small pig warns: "The insurgents are among us."

An editorial cartoon by Arun, published on Friday (February 23), showed a soldier studying documents about the toppled government's alleged corruption, but ignoring hacked up humans in the "Deep South."

After overthrowing then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's three-time elected government and invalidating Thailand's constitution, the ruling generals frequently focused on corruption, alcohol abuse, lotteries, satellite ownership, media censorship, foreign investment, airport construction, and their fear of eavesdroppers listening to the military's telephone calls.

The military suggested walkie-talkies.

Southern ethnic Malay-Thai guerrillas meanwhile have sharpened their deadly, synchronized bombings.

The coup leaders earlier announced they would try a soft approach in the Muslim-majority south, but some of Thailand's majority Buddhist population demand a tougher approach.

"The policy of not allowing security forces to fight insurgents is based on the fear of causing civilian casualties, which would be counterproductive to the government's effort to win over the hearts and minds of locals in the area," said another relatively pro-coup English language newspaper, The Nation, in a Monday (February 26) editorial.

Impatient, it bemoaned the "inexcusable failure by security forces" to crush the Islamists.

"The peaceful approach to the southern problem has proved correct," insisted a retired general, Surayud Chulanont, who the coup leaders installed as prime minister.

"We are increasingly gaining the cooperation of Islamic countries," Mr. Surayud said, apparently referring to increased trade with Iran, a recent visit by Qatari officials when they were shot at on a tour of the south, and other links.

Copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich, who has reported news from Asia for the past 28 years, and is co-author of the non-fiction book of investigative journalism, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is