Thailand said yesterday it would drop all charges against 58 Muslims arrested at a deadly protest two years ago in a bid to bring peace to the insurgency-torn south of the country.
The Office of the Attorney General said Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont's post-coup government hoped the decision to drop the disputed charges would promote "national reconciliation."
It followed an apology on Thursday by Surayad for the deaths of 85 Muslims killed when security forces broke up a protest in the southern border town of Tak Bai on Oct. 25, 2004.
Of those killed, 78 were crushed to death when they were loaded horizontally into army trucks.
The Tak Bai massacre was one of the bloodiest incidents in the mainly Muslim provinces of southern Thailand where more than 1,500 people have been killed since the latest insurgency broke out in January 2004.
Critics have blamed deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra's heavy-handed approach for worsening the bloodshed.
Surayud, who was installed by the military following the bloodless coup on Sept. 19 that ousted Thaksin, has vowed to hold peace talks with militants.
"We came out with this decision after talks with government agencies. They all agreed that national reconciliation could be achieved if we dropped the charges," said Athapol Yaisawang, a spokesman for the attorney general.
The 58 Muslims were arrested for gathering illegally and causing public disturbance at the Tak Bai protest.
The Muslim-majority region on the border of Malaysia was an independent sultanate that mainly Buddhist Thailand annexed in 1902, and separatist unrest has erupted periodically ever since.
Although Surayud has promised to hold talks, the government has admitted it is still uncertain who is behind the three years of unrest.
The almost daily violence has been variously blamed on ethnic Malay separatists, Islamic extremists and criminal gangs.
Late on Thursday, a 48-year-old Muslim man was shot dead by suspected Islamic militants in Narathiwat Province when he walked home from a mosque.
Separately, at least 30 militants burst into two army camps in Narathiwat late Thursday, but no one was injured in the gun fights.