Thailand's military has agreed to hold talks with Muslim rebels involved in a bloody insurgency in the south, the country's powerful army chief said, reversing the policy of the elected government deposed in a coup last month.
Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, who led the bloodless Sept. 19 coup against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, said officials from certain rebel factions had contacted a top army officer and requested talks.
"I have agreed to the talks," Sondhi said on Thursday. "I stress that these will be talks, not negotiations." He did not indicate if any date had been set.
Wan Kadir Che Man, a leader of the Bersatu rebel group _ believed to be an umbrella group of Muslim insurgents _ confirmed that members of his organization had been in contact with "certain Thai authorities" about holding peace talks.
However, he said in an e-mail to The Associated Press that Bersatu had not yet received an official invitation to hold talks.
"But if the incoming government handles it correctly, there is no reason why (the conflict) could not be resolved," he wrote.
The coup leaders on Sunday appointed Surayud Chulanont, a former army commander, to serve as interim prime minister until an election promised for October next year. Surayud is expected to name a Cabinet next week.
Sondhi's coup was welcomed by many Thais, who saw the ouster of Thaksin as a good chance to end the bloody Muslim insurgency that has killed more than 1,700 people.
Sondhi, one of the few Muslims in the country to rise to such a prominent position, has been seen as a potential healing force for the conflict. About 90 percent of Thailand's more than 63 million citizens are Buddhists. The country's three southernmost provinces are the only ones with Muslim majorities.
Another rebel leader, meanwhile, urged authorities to investigate Thaksin for alleged crimes against humanity, saying the ousted leader should be tried at the International Court of Justice for alleged murders and disappearances of suspected insurgents.
"Thaksin Shinawatra's hands are full of blood," said exiled Muslim rebel leader Lukman B. Lima, head of the Pattani United Liberation Organization, one of several groups fighting for a separate Muslim state in southern Thailand.
In an e-mail from Sweden, Lukman said Thailand's incoming interim government will not be able to fully solve the divisions in the south unless they "bring Thaksin and some of his generals ... to the court of justice in the Hague."
Thaksin's government, which came under harsh criticism for its strong-arm approach to the violence, had repeatedly declined to hold any talks with Muslim insurgents, while Sondhi had urged a peaceful approach to ending the violence.
Thaksin, who was also accused of widespread corruption and abuse of power, was widely detested among Muslims in the south, where the separatist insurgency flared in January 2004.
He deployed thousands of troops to the region, and shifted commanders and tactics many times. He ordered all-out manhunts for militants, armed teachers and villagers and imposed draconian laws.
Many moderate Muslims said the conflict could never be resolved as long as he remained in power.
The government's heavy-handed response also bred discontent in the army, which was one of the factors that drove the Sept. 19 coup. Less than three weeks before the coup, Sondhi had proposed talks with insurgents, but Thaksin's government shot down the idea.
Violence has waxed and waned for decades in Thailand's three southernmost provinces _ Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat _ which were annexed a century ago from what had been an Islamic sultanate.
Muslim southerners have long complained of being treated like second-class citizens, with fewer educational and job opportunities than members of the country's Buddhist majority.