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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 October 2006, 07:41 GMT 08:41 UK
Thai army agrees to rebel talks
Tanks leaving the Royal Plaza on Sunday
The military took over in a coup last month
Thailand's new military rulers say they have agreed to talks with Islamic rebels in the south, in a significant policy change from the ousted regime.

General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, who led the September coup, said he had agreed to a request for talks from several rebel factions.

No rebels groups have yet confirmed the development.

Former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in the coup, had refused to hold discussions with the insurgents.

Gen Sonthi, who is himself a Muslim, had proposed such talks before the coup but the idea had been rejected by Mr Thaksin.

Gen Sonthi has also confirmed that he has no immediate plans to end martial law, which has been in place since the coup.

Despite international concerns over the limitations this law imposes - such as a ban on political gatherings and restrictions on press freedom - he has refused to give a date for the rules to be rescinded.

A US embassy official said Washington would be worried if martial law was not lifted within 10 days of the new interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont taking office, which he did on Sunday.

But Gen Sonthi told the Associated Press: "We will have to continue to use it [martial law] because we don't know if anything is going to happen during the transition period."

Bloody insurgency

It is so far unclear when and where talks between Thailand's military and the rebel leaders in the south will take place, or which rebel groups will be represented.

TROUBLED SOUTH
map
Home to most of Thailand's 4% Muslim minority
Muslim rebels fought the government up to the mid-80s
Suspected militants have upped attacks this year, targeting Buddhists
Security forces' response criticised by rights groups

A senior military official told the Nation newspaper that the meeting could take place as soon as next month.

But the south's top military leader, Lieutenant General Viroach Buacharoon, told Reuters: "Before any dialogue takes place, the insurgents must stop the violence for a month to show their sincerity."

A spokesman for the army, Col Acra Pritroch, told the BBC that the talks would be between senior army leaders and the heads of rebel groups, but would not involve Gen Sonthi.

More than 1,500 people have been killed since January 2004 in the bloody insurgency in Thailand's southern provinces.

Officials blame Muslim insurgents for much of the unrest, although criminal gangs are also thought to be behind some of the attacks.

Thailand's new prime minister, Gen Surayud, is continuing to put together an interim Cabinet, to take charge of the country's affairs until elections in October 2007.

He said on Wednesday that he would make his Cabinet selection public early next week.




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