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Thai Generals Pledge to Lift Martial Law by Year's End

Thailand's military-appointed government says it plans to lift martial law before the end of this year. Meanwhile, economic incentives are being offered to the troubled south. From Bangkok, Roger Wilkison reports the head of the country's ruling military junta says he wants the country to return to normal as soon as possible.

General Sonthi Boonyaratglin was asked during an interview with CNN when the martial law he imposed after ousting twice-elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra last September would end. At first, he answered "whenever possible". He then modified that to "soon". Finally, when pressed, he indicated that it will be before the end of the year.

Other government officials soon picked up the cue. Defense Minister Boonrawd Somtat told reporters that he anticipates the government will end martial law in December.

He says that martial law will be lifted as soon as the beginning of next month or as late as the end of the year. In any case, he says, it will be within the month of December for sure.

Despite the government's pledge, some officials hastened to add that martial law might not be lifted all over the country, only in most areas.

Even though there is little sign of martial law being enforced in most parts of Thailand, some generals maintain that emergency powers are still needed in parts of the country where support for Mr. Thaksin is strong.

The military removed Mr. Thaksin from office after accusing his government of corruption and abuse of power. It has told the former leader to stay out of Thailand until further notice.

One region where martial law is unlikely to end is in the country's deep south, where 1,800 people have died in a three-year-old wave of violence that is mostly blamed on Islamic militants who want the area to secede from mainly Buddhist Thailand.

Prime minister Surayud Chulanont, who has made ending the violence there a priority, has announced a package of economic incentives for the hard-pressed region along Thailand's border with Malaysia.

He says the government will designate Thailand's southernmost provinces as a special development zone to aid the area's economy, which is in decline because of the unrest. He says the government will reduce taxes on private companies operating in the south so that they can survive and keep people employed.

Mr. Surayud also promised a job creation program for the region but gave no details. Mr. Surayud has offered a number of olive branches to the heavily Muslim south, most of whose inhabitants are ethnic Malay.

He recently suggested that officials there adopt Malay language at work. Two weeks ago he said Islamic, or sharia, law should be applied to the area's Muslims. He has also apologized for past brutality by security forces.

The militants have not responded to these peace offers and, instead, have stepped up their bombings and drive-by shootings.