Fri, Oct 06, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Thai army chief preparing to hold talks with rebels

AP AND AFP , BANGKOK

The Thai army chief who staged last month's coup said yesterday he has agreed to hold the first talks with Muslim rebels since an insurgency erupted in 2004.

This declaration marked an abrupt policy change from the administration of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in hopes of ending the violence.

General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, who led the bloodless against Thaksin on Sept. 19, said that officials from certain rebel factions had contacted a top army commander and requested talks.

"I have agreed to the talks," Sondhi said. "I stress that these will be talks, not negotiations."

Thaksin's government, which came under harsh criticism for its inflexible, strong-arm approach to the violence, had repeatedly declined to hold any talks with Muslim insurgents -- a decision that had put him at odds with Sondhi, who had urged a peaceful approach to ending the violence.

Thaksin, who was also accused of widespread corruption and abuse of power, was widely detested in Thailand's three Muslim-majority provinces, where violence flared in January 2004.

Many moderate Muslims said that the conflict could never be resolved as long as he remained in power.

The government's heavy-handed response bred discontent in the army that was one of the factors driving the military coup of Sept. 19.

"They see that only talks can end the violence," Sondhi said. ``If they are seeking cooperation with us, that kind of approach is OK with me."

To many Thais, the new regime is seen as a good chance to resolve the bloody Muslim insurgency that has killed more than 1,700 people.

Meanwhile, Thailand's military-backed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont said yesterday that the country will remain under martial law at least until his Cabinet is named next week.

Asked if his government was considering lifting martial law, Surayud said: "No, not yet, because there is no Cabinet yet."

"In principle, I have to consult with the Cabinet, so I cannot say anything yet," he added.

Surayud was appointed prime minister on Sunday by the military junta, which remains as an overseer of the government and retains broad powers, including the ability to sack the prime minister.

Surayud has said that he would meet his self-imposed deadline of naming a Cabinet within a week of taking office.

He declined, however, to name the individuals who would join his government.

The US on Wednesday urged Thailand's military coup leaders to lift martial law within seven to 10 days and to bring forward elections that the generals have promised would be held late next year.

Human rights organizations have also called for the junta to rescind bans on political gatherings and restrictions on press freedom.

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