EXCLUSIVE - Probe reveals Thai troops' role in civilian deaths

BANGKOK Fri Dec 10, 2010 6:39pm IST

File photo of Thai army soldiers firing at anti-government ''red-shirt'' protesters on a highway near the old airport in the northern suburbs of Bangkok April 28, 2010. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard/Files

File photo of Thai army soldiers firing at anti-government ''red-shirt'' protesters on a highway near the old airport in the northern suburbs of Bangkok April 28, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Eric Gaillard/Files

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BANGKOK (Reuters) - The Thai military played a larger role in the killing of civilians during political unrest in Bangkok this year than officials have acknowledged, leaked state documents seen by Reuters show.

A preliminary state probe into political violence in April and May concluded Thai special forces positioned on an elevated railway track fired into the grounds of a Buddhist temple where several thousand protesters had taken refuge on May 19.

Three of six people shot dead at the temple were likely killed by troops, the investigation found, directly contradicting statements by the Thai military, which has denied soldiers were responsible for the killings at the temple.

The report said there was not enough evidence to come to a conclusion about who was responsible for the other three deaths in the temple, but it said all six victims were hit by high-velocity bullets.

"There is a reasonable amount of facts, evidence and witness accounts to believe that (three) deaths resulted from security officials' actions on duty," the investigators said, recommending that police look into the deaths further.

Asked by Reuters to comment on the leaked documents, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva did not deny their authenticity, but said investigations were still not complete and efforts were being made to expedite the process.

"The next step will involve the judicial process so we can't react to any incomplete information", he said.

The findings by Thailand's Department of Special Investigation (DSI) are likely to embolden the "red shirt" anti-government protest movement challenging the legitimacy of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who in June blamed armed elements among the protesters for the temple deaths.

At least 10,000 red shirts rallied at Bangkok's Democracy Monument on Friday, demanding the release of scores of protesters and the movement's leaders, most of whom have been held since the May 19 crackdown. The leaders are facing terrorism charges.

According to the DSI's investigation, Wat Prathum Wanaram, a Buddhist temple, had been designated a "safe zone" for women, children, the elderly and the infirm. Thousands fled there when the military used force on May 19 to disperse protesters occupying a nearby commercial district.

Witnesses reported scenes of chaos outside the temple as gunshots rang out and civilians fled a shopping area.

One witness said he saw soldiers firing from the elevated train track into a medical tent inside the compound, where two nurses treating wounded civilians were killed.

Ninety-one people were killed and at least 1,800 were wounded during the unrest in April and May. More than 30 buildings were set on fire. It was the worst political violence in modern Thai history.

REUTERS CAMERAMAN LIKELY KILLED BY TROOPS, REPORT SHOWS

The DSI is investigating a total of 89 deaths linked to the unrest but the government has yet to publicly release any findings despite pressure from human rights groups.

The findings seen by Reuters were contained in two DSI reports -- one on the temple shootings and another on the April 10 death of Reuters cameraman Hiro Muramoto.

Muramoto, a 43-year-old Japanese national based in Tokyo, was killed by a high-velocity bullet wound to the chest while covering protests in Bangkok's old quarter.

The report quoted a witness who said Muramoto collapsed as gunfire flashed from the direction of soldiers. Thailand's government has not yet publicly released the report into his death despite intense diplomatic pressure from Japan.

Reuters Editor in Chief David Schlesinger called for the immediate public release of the full report.

"The Thai authorities owe it to Hiro's family to reveal exactly how this tragedy happened and who was responsible," Schlesinger said in a statement.

The detailed accounts of soldiers opening fire on civilians could inflame public anger and galvanise supporters of twice-elected and now-fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who has called for an international probe into the April-May violence, including the contentious deaths at the temple.

One witness hiding under a car at the temple said he was shot at four or five times by men in camouflage uniforms positioned on the elevated mass transit Skytrain track.

He was hit once and helped to safety by a monk. Autopsies showed bullets found in four of the six bodies inside the temple were the same type that soldiers on the elevated tracks said they were equipped with. An unknown number of people were wounded at the temple.

'OFFICIAL SECRET'

Soldiers quoted in the DSI report said they fired warning shots towards the temple and came under fire from black-clad gunmen from below and by another gunman in the temple. They said they were providing cover fire for troops on the ground, who had requested backup.

Tharit Pengdith, director general of the Department of Special Investigation, said the DSI had concluded its preliminary investigation and passed the results to the police but had not publicly disclosed the contents.

"The investigation report is a sensitive issue to talk about or to confirm its authenticity," he said. "It's an official secret. To confirm the authenticity of the report sent to police would affect the rights of the people whose names were in it."

He would neither confirm nor deny the authenticity of the two reports seen by Reuters but said police will now investigate the case of the three people believed to have been killed by troops at the temple, along with three others possibly killed by troops, including Muramoto.

The results of the police investigation will be sent to the DSI and government prosecutors.

If troops are found responsible for civilian deaths, families could sue for compensation. But authorities could also claim shootings were committed in the line of official duty.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Marshall in Singapore; Editing by Andrew Marshall and John Chalmers)

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