By Pracha Hariraksapitak and Panarat Thepgumpanat
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai investigators have clear evidence that the military was responsible for the death of Reuters cameraman Hiro Muramoto during political violence last year, a deputy prime minister said on Tuesday.
Witness testimony confirmed, with certainty, that the bullet that killed the 43-year-old Japanese national was fired by a soldier, Chalerm Yubamrung told reporters.
"For certain, the death was caused by a government official because we have witnesses who state that they saw the event when it happened," he said following a meeting with Japan's ambassador to Thailand.
"The direction in which the bullet was shot was confirmation that it came from the government officials' side," Chalerm said.
Muramoto was killed by a high-velocity bullet wound to the chest while covering clashes between anti-government "red shirt" protesters and troops in Bangkok on April 10 last year.
He was among 25 people, including several soldiers, who died that night in one of the worst bouts of political violence in Thailand in decades. Unidentified gunmen dressed in black clothes and balaclavas were seen among the demonstrators.
Chalerm's comments followed the issue on Monday of a police summons for former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban to answer questions related to the April-May unrest, during which 91 people were killed and more than 1,800 wounded.
The evidence stated by Chalerm concurs with witness accounts in a leaked copy of a preliminary investigation by the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) seen by Reuters last December, which said the shot came from the direction of troops.
A witness was quoted as saying he saw "a flash from a gun barrel of a soldier," then watched Muramoto fall to the ground after he was shot while filming security forces.
The issue of whether the military was behind Muramoto's death is sensitive in a country where the armed forces are extremely powerful and deeply politicized.
DSI Director-General Tharit Pengdit issued a statement on February 27 that contradicted the initial findings, saying the bullet came from a type of rifle not used by soldiers that day.
But in September, the DSI pressed for a new probe into the case, a dramatic reversal from its earlier stance.
Chalerm said he told the ambassador during Tuesday's meeting that the probe would soon be concluded and there would be no political intervention in the proceedings.
"I expressed to the Japanese ambassador: 'Let us be certain as regards our investigation. There will be no intervention'," he said.
The head of the probe, Police Major-General Anuchai Lekbumrung, told Reuters that work on the case was continuing. It had yet to be sent to public prosecutors and Suthep and Abhisit would be questioned on Friday, he added.
Tharit told Reuters on Tuesday the DSI and the police were in agreement on the findings reached so far and believed there was sufficient evidence to show Muramoto was killed by a gun fired by a soldier.
The protracted investigation appears to have picked up pace since Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra took office in August after her Puea Thai Party's resounding victory over Abhisit's Democrat Party, which was in power at the time of the unrest.
Yingluck is the sister of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the figurehead of the red-shirt protest movement long opposed by the military and Thailand's establishment.
(Additional reporting by Natnicha Chuwiruch; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Alan Raybould and Raju Gopalakrishnan)