Thailand probe says four unarmed civilians shot dead in deep south were not rebels

YALA, Thailand (AFP) - Four unarmed Muslim men shot dead last month in Thailand's conflict-racked south were not rebels, an investigation found on Tuesday, raising the possibility of legal action against the security forces.

Two villagers and two students were gunned down on March 25 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.

In a region where killings of civilians are common and legal action against security forces is rare, initially the authorities said the men were members of one of the patchwork of Muslim rebel groups waging a bloody decade-long insurgency.

But an investigating panel headed by Pattani governor Werapong Kaewsuwan found the men were unarmed and mistaken for militants. "It is clear that all four people were not members of militant groups," the panel said in a statement, adding that weapons seized after the incident did not belong to the men. "State actions have caused damage and severely impacted on the public, therefore all of the officials who were involved must be prosecuted in line with judicial process."

Rights groups have for years accused Thai security forces of carrying out extrajudicial killings with impunity in the remote and inaccessible south.

Most of the nearly 6,300 victims of the last decade of conflict have been civilians, both Muslims and Buddhists, killed by rebels or the security forces.

Pattani police commander Kriskorn Paleethunyawong confirmed the panel's findings but dampened expectations of criminal proceedings.

"We are open and listen to all ideas and opinions but it depends on the judicial system to rule what is right or wrong," he told AFP.

Last week, the commander said seven members of the security forces were being sought over the incident.

Civil society campaigners have little faith in investigating panels, saying that so far no members of the security forces have been prosecuted over civilian deaths.

When killings occur, inquests commonly rule that police, military and paramilitary forces acted "in the line of duty" even when victims are unarmed.

The Pattani case damages a highly publicised "hearts and minds" strategy by the military to pay villagers to provide their own security and inform on insurgent movements.

It is also likely to deepen mistrust of the ruling junta, which is trying to revive a stalled peace process with several rebel groups seeking more autonomy for the deep south.

Thailand, a mainly Buddhist nation, annexed the 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.