Thai forces face murder charges for shooting dead unarmed Muslim men in restive south

BANGKOK (AFP) - Seven Thai security officials will face murder charges for shooting dead a group of unarmed Muslim men in the conflict-hit south, police said Wednesday, as details emerged of a fresh civilian killing at an army checkpoint.

Two villagers and two students were gunned down on 25 March in a raid on Ban To Chut village in Pattani province when security forces, acting on a tip-off, opened fire on a group of suspected militants.

Initially authorities said the men were armed rebels but an investigating panel on Tuesday revealed the four to be unarmed civilians, not linked to the festering decade-long insurgency against the Thai state.

Legal action against officials is rare in the kingdom and particularly in the deep south where civilians comprise most of the 6,300 victims of a decade of conflict between security forces and rebels fighting for greater autonomy in the Muslim-majority region.

"They (the seven) face murder charges. But an investigation will show whether the murders were due to their security operation or in self-defence," Kriskorn Paleethunyawong, police commander of Pattani province, told AFP, adding that the seven men have not yet been arrested.

"I am waiting for them to surrender," he said, refusing to confirm whether the officials belonged to the military or police.

In a new report of violence late Monday a soldier shot dead an unarmed 24-year-old Muslim man as he tried to evade a checkpoint in Mayo district of Pattani province, local police commander Jeeraseth Daongentrakool told AFP.

"A military officier... fired a shot at the tyres but missed and hit the victim," he said, adding the man died instantly at the scene.

Thailand, a mainly Buddhist nation, annexed the southern region more than 100 years ago and stands accused of perpetrating severe rights abuses as well as stifling the distinctive local culture through clumsy, and often forced, assimilation schemes.

Pornpen Khongkachonkiet of the rights group Cross Cultural Foundation welcomed the "timely and frank" release of findings into the killing of the four men, but urged an end to a culture of "impunity" among the security forces.

"Now the army commander needs to show leadership and suspend the alleged perpetrators or at least show some disciplinary punishment," pending the judicial process, she said.