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Thailand Frees Muslim Protesters From South

Charges against dozens of Thai Muslims arrested during a protest in 2004 are to be dropped, as part of the government's attempt to end violence in the Muslim-dominated south of the country. The move coincides with progress in the investigation into the disappearance two years ago of a prominent Muslim human rights lawyer.

Thai Attorney General Pachara Yuthithamdamrong announced Friday that charges have been dropped against more than 90 Muslims arrested during a protest in the southern town of Tak Bai in October 2004.

Fifty-eight of the men have been in jail since that incident, which sparked a dramatic rise in violence in the country's three southernmost provinces.

Attapol Yaisawang, spokesman for the attorney general's office, discussed the decision with VOA.

Mr. Attapol says charges against a total of 92 people are being dropped, and final release documents for the 58 detainees will be presented to the Narathiwat Provincial Court next Monday.

The incident at Tak Bai, in Narathiwat province, ended with the death of 84 Muslims. At least six men were killed when security forces opened fire during a day-long protest against the earlier arrest of Muslim activists.

Another 78 died after dozens of protesters were stacked one on top of the other in police trucks, hands bound behind their backs, and driven for four hours. It was later determined that most of the 78 died of asphyxiation and dehydration.

Violence in the south, which had started in January 2004, escalated dramatically after the Tak Bai incident. Up to 1,700 people have now died, with shootings, bombings and beheadings sometimes occurring on a daily basis.

No group has been singled out as responsible for the killings, no claims of responsibility have been made, and no demands have been issued. But a large percentage of the victims have been Buddhists, who make up the majority in Thailand, and Muslims are thought to be behind most of these killings.

The dropping of the charges in Tak Bai is part of the effort by the military junta that took over Thailand in September to bring the violence to an end.

The day before the attorney general's announcement, Surayud Chulanont, the interim prime minister installed by the military junta, visited the south. Mr. Surayud formally apologized to the people there for abuses committed under the administration of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in the military coup.

Meanwhile, new progress has come to light in the search for prominent Muslim human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaichit. Somchai disappeared in early 2004 after publicly accusing the security forces of torture and abuse in the south, and is believed to have been murdered.

Thailand's senior forensic scientist, Dr. Porntip Rojanusunan, says bone fragments thought to be Somchai's have been uncovered at a site 100 kilometers north of Bangkok, where the authorities believe Somchai was killed.

Porntip says the fragments have to be analyzed before any conclusions can be reached.

"This is only the beginning because we have to evaluate the place, do the scene investigation," said Porntip. "We have to send this specimen back to the [Forensic Science] Institute and do the analysis and then [send it] to the lab - more than one month."

Justice ministry officials say they believe Somchai was killed and his body burned at the site, and the remains were then dumped into a nearby river.

The solving of the case is viewed as another necessary step in the government's efforts to rebuild confidence between the state and the Muslim community.