BANGKOK (AFP) - The Thai army has expressed "regret" after troops shot dead three Muslim men foraging in the jungle this week, and promised a probe, a rare admission of wrongdoing by the military in Thailand's insurgency-scarred south.
On Monday (Dec 16), security forces killed three men aged 24-27 in a jungle in Narathiwat province, believing them to be Muslim militants.
The commander of the southern army region - which oversees the three southernmost provinces - apologised for the "mistaken identity" made by the officers.
"All three people shot dead were villagers, not militants," Lieutenant-General Pornsak Poolsawat admitted in a statement obtained on Wednesday.
The military has been locked in a simmering conflict with Muslim militants in Thailand's south for 15 years as the rebels agitate for more autonomy.
More than 7,000 lives have been claimed in clashes - the majority civilians both Buddhist and Muslim.
The three men killed on Monday had been foraging in the jungle, Pornsak said, vowing an investigation into whether perpetrators had "intentionally" killed the men, which could result in prosecution.
Critics say impunity reigns in the south, with no military personnel ever having been successfully prosecuted for alleged abuses.
A heavy military presence blankets the region under martial law as soldiers attempt to contain an insurgency masterminded by shadowy rebel groups who accuse the Thai state of heavy-handed tactics.
The bodies of the three men were retrieved on Tuesday from the mountainous terrain and transported to a nearby hospital.
The admission comes months after the death in August of Abdulloh Esormusor, a Muslim man who was detained by the military and left in a coma after being interrogated at a notorious Thai detention centre.
Suspects are routinely taken for interrogation and held under emergency laws in detention centres where rights groups have documented torture.
Anger has snowballed over Abdulloh's case, with an umbrella group representing some of the shadowy rebel groups saying they suspected foul play and calling for an international probe.