By Amy Sawitta Lefevre
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand said on Thursday talks were under way with members of insurgent groups in the south of the country, where thousands of people have been killed since 2004 in violence blamed on Muslim separatists.
The government has ruled out peace talks in the past, most recently in April, but Yutthasak Sasiprapa, a deputy prime minister in charge of security in the south, confirmed there had been a change of heart.
"Right now we are holding peace talks with different insurgent groups but we are still not clear what they want," he told reporters.
The Southern Border Provinces Administration Center, a government agency in charge of security operations in the south, said talks were being held with current and former members of groups active in the region after a spike in violence in the three southernmost provinces bordering Malaysia.
The provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat have seen almost daily gun fights and bomb attacks since a shadowy separatist insurgency, simmering for decades, resurfaced in January 2004.
Since then, the conflict has claimed more than 5,200 lives, according to Deep South Watch, an organization that monitors the violence.
The three provinces are Muslim-dominated and were part of an independent Malay Muslim sultanate until annexed by Thailand in 1909.
Each year the region sees an increase in violence during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan but analysts say there was an escalation even before that this year.
Under pressure from the public to come up with solutions to the conflict, the government at first seemed to want to concentrate on suppressing the insurgency, setting up a new command center last month to oversee operations.
Yutthasak said the government was liaising with two main insurgent groups but that talks were not yet at the negotiation stage.
The government has also said it was targeting young people recruited by militant groups to try to get them to give up violence.
Recent incidents in the region included a car bomb at a hotel in July that triggered a widespread blackout plus the shooting of four soldiers this month that was captured by surveillance cameras and leaked to television stations.
Successive governments have spent about 160 billion baht ($5 billion) over eight years trying to end the violence, and this year the government increased the budget for security in the region by 25 percent.
Analysts monitoring the conflict say the escalation in violent attacks this year suggest the extra funds plus a doubling of the military presence in the area since 2007 had achieved little.
(Additional reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat; Editing by Alan Raybould and Robert Birsel)