BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai security forces killed four innocent Muslim men in a raid in the south of the country last month, an investigating team said on Tuesday, dismissing army assertions they were rebels.
Predominantly Buddhist Thailand has been fighting a low-level insurgency in its poor, Muslim south for decades but the violence has picked up in recent years with Bangkok governments preoccupied with a decade-long power struggle there.
The four were killed on March 25 when security forces raided a village in Pattani, one of three Muslim-dominated provinces bordering Malaysia, as part of an operation to arrest rebels.
The army said two of the dead were members of the Runda Kumpulan Kecil group, a Muslim insurgent group based in the south.
But the independent Central Islamic Committee in Pattani denied that any of the four were rebels.
"Those who died were not instigators of violence and the weapons found did not belong to them," Waedueramae Mamingi, chairman of the committee and a member of the investigating team, told reporters.
"They were not members of any extremist group," he said, adding that legal action against security forces could follow.
The insurgency in the south has claimed more than 6,000 lives since January 2004 when resistance to central government rule resurfaced violently.
Colonel Banpot Phupian, a spokesman for the military's Internal Security Operations Command, told Reuters the military could not immediately comment on the team's findings.
The investigating team called for legal action against those responsible.
"State actions have caused damage and severely impacted the public, therefore all the officials who were involved must be prosecuted in line with judicial process," the panel said in a statement.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who came to power after a military coup last year, vowed to make peace in the south a national priority but has made little progress.
Successive governments have tried to quell the insurgency without success.
(Reporting by Surapan Boonthanom and Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Robert Birsel)