BANGKOK - Thailand's military apologized Tuesday, January 31, for the killing of four Muslims in the country's troubled south after an outpouring of anger from rights groups and Muslims.
"If our officers were in fact guilty, they will have to face up to these charges and apologize," Deputy Prime Minister Yuthasak Sasiprapha, a retired army general, said, Reuters reported.
He added that compensation and justice would be given to the families of the victims.
Four Muslims were gunned down Sunday by army rangers in the southern island of Pattani on suspicion of being separatists.
An army spokesman said on Monday the four men, who were in the back of a pickup truck in which a rifle was found, were killed after gunmen opened fire on troops who attempted to approach the vehicle to carry out an inspection.
The rangers returned fire, killing four and wounding three others, but the gunmen fled on a motorcycle, the spokesman said.
But the killings prompted an outpouring of anger from Muslims and human rights groups.
To ease the Muslim anger, army commander-in-chief Prayuth Chan-ocha apologized to the families of the victims.
Thai Muslims, who make up five percent of the predominantly Buddhist kingdom's population, have long complained of discrimination under the heavy-handed practices by the military.
They have also called for Malay to become an official language and to replace the Buddhist-centric school curriculum with one less hostile to Muslim sensitivities.
More than 4,000 people have been killed in south Thailand since violence erupted almost eight years ago.
Previous Thai governments have tried "hearts and minds" campaigns to tackle the unrest, but nothing has worked.
The International Crisis Group had recently urged the military-installed government to start preparing the Buddhist majority to accept a negotiated autonomy for the Muslim-majority south.
Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat are the only Muslim-majority provinces in Thailand and were an independent Muslim sultanate until annexed officially a century ago.