Around 50 Thai Air Force planes have taken took off to “bomb” the largely Muslim southern with paper birds as a symbol of peace for the restive region where nearly 500 people have been killed since January.

Villagers stared into the sky awaiting the deluge of an estimated 100 million paper birds, one of which was signed by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and carried the promise of a scholarship or a job for the finder.

For some there was initial disappointment as a plane circled in the distance and then moved away, apparently having returned to base to reload, local officials said.

But Thaksin’s bird campaign just weeks ahead of a general election caught the imagination of the predominantly Buddhist country, even in Bangkok where sympathy for the Malay-speaking south is limited.

Everywhere people huddled in groups to fold birds — they were meant to be doves, a symbol of peace, but most turned out to look more like cranes — after Thaksin called on all 63 million Thais to make one.

In the end, estimates of up to 120 million accompanied five Hercules C-130 military transport planes crammed with bags of paper birds, made out of everything from bank notes to plastic, to southern airports for reloading onto smaller planes.

The gesture, done this weekend to mark the birthday of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, has done little to mollify the Muslim leadership of the region, once an independent sultanate that still chafes under the rule of remote Bangkok.

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