Thailand's junta says rebel rifts are thwarting peace talks in restive south

BANGKOK (AFP) - Thailand's junta on Tuesday (Oct 13) said rifts within the largest and most violent rebel group in the kingdom's deep south were overshadowing the prospect of fresh peace talks to end the 11-year insurgency.

A bloody conflict has claimed more than 6,400 lives - the majority being civilians - in Thailand's southernmost provinces, which are predominantly Muslim and were colonised by Thailand over a century ago.

The Thai authorities stand accused of widespread human rights abuses and forced assimilation schemes over the culturally distinct south.

A patchwork of rebel groups are also accused of targeting civilians as well as the Thai security forces who blanket the zone bordering Malaysia.

Since seizing power in a coup last year, Thailand's ruling junta has tried to reboot talks with several insurgent groups.

But the military-stacked government is not yet convinced their negotiating partners have influence over the rebel rank-and-file.

The head of Thailand's National Security Council said the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) - the largest of a patchwork of shadowy rebel groups - was split over whether to join talks.

"In the BRN there are elements who agree with the talks and others who use violence... they don't have unity in the group," General Thaweep Netniyom told reporters.

Thailand remains committed to re-starting peace dialogue, he added, although a date for fresh negotiations was yet to be reached.

On Monday, the BRN issued a rare statement calling for "observers from other states" to attend any future talks - a condition rejected by Thailand which does not want to internationalise what it sees as a domestic issue.

The statement, attributed to the BRN's information department, said the group would only join a peace process that is "sincere" and not a "form of political subterfuge" to undermine the rebel cause.

Despite near-daily ambushes and bomb attacks, the war playing out is only a few hundred kilometres away from some of Thailand's best known tourist havens and is under-reported.

That is mainly because it is highly-localised, but experts say it violence may eventually fan out if peace is not won.

Civilians live in fear of both rebels and the security forces operating in the lush, mountainous zone.

In August a new umbrella group representing several militant outfits - including elements of the BRN - met Thai officials in Kuala Lumpur for exploratory talks.

But experts say it is so far unclear if the new group, Mara Patani, can curb the violence.