BANGKOK, March 20 (Reuters) - The Thai army and police are "disappearing" ethnic Malay Muslims in the far south in a deliberate attempt to beat an increasingly bloody separatist rebellion, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.
"The Thai security forces are using 'disappearances' as a way to weaken the militants and instill fear in the Malay Muslim community," said Brad Adams, Asia director of the New York-based group.
"These 'disappearances' appear to be a matter of policy, not simply the work of rogue elements in the security services."
In a 69-page report, Human Rights Watch detailed 22 unresolved cases in which it said the evidence indicated strongly that security forces were responsible.
The real total was likely to be far higher because many families were too scared to speak out in fear of reprisals, it added.
One typical case involved a man called Sata Labo who disappeared on Jan 9, 2004, five days after a raid on a military barracks that marked the revival of conflict in the region -- an independent sultanate until annexed by Bangkok a century ago.
Sata Labo called his sister from his mobile phone saying he had been stopped at a police checkpoint, where his car was searched. He was told to report to a police station, but has not been heard from again, his sister said.
More than 2,000 people have been killed in three years of unrest in Thailand's four southernmost provinces, where 80 percent of people are Muslim, ethnic Malays and do not speak Thai as a first language.
Most of the disappearances occured under Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in September, Human Rights Watch said.
Army spokesman Acra Tiproch denied any abuses were continuing.
"Nobody can do that now under the policy of Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, who focuses on peace and national reconciliation," he said.
Surayud, Thaksin's army-appointed successor, has apologised to southern Muslims for past abuses and stated a willingness for dialogue to resolve the unrest. The hit-and-run insurgency has alarmed foreign governments, though there is no evidence suggesting international militant groups such as al Qaeda are involved.
Despite Surayud's assurances, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a separate report last week that "credible reports of torture and extra-judicial killings" have persisted.
The ICG also said a purely military solution was bound to fail, but that Surayud's other options were limited.
Bangkok has failed to identify any militant leaders -- or indeed whether any such leaders exist -- and Thailand's large Buddhist majority remains hostile to talks on regional autonomy or greater recognition of the Malay culture and language.
"Anything seen as appeasement would be politically suicidal for Thai leaders dependent for support on voters outside the south, most of whom had no problems with Thaksin's get-tough approach," the ICG said. (Additional reporting by Nopporn Wong-Anan)