BANGKOK, Thailand – The Thai army chief who staged last month's coup said Thursday that he has agreed to hold talks with rebel leaders in the restive south, an abrupt policy change from the administration of the ousted prime minister.
In other news Thursday, Thailand's new interim prime minister said that the country's candidate to become the next secretary general of the United Nations is dropping his bid for the job.
The announcement of Surakiart Sathirathai's withdrawal follows an informal poll of the 15 Security Council nations, which gave South Korea's foreign minister near-certain victory in the contest to succeed Kofi Annan. Jordan's U.N. ambassador dropped out of the race on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, who led the bloodless coup against Thaksin Shinawatra on Sept. 19, said that officials from certain rebel factions had contacted a top army commander and requested talks.
"I have agreed to the talks," Sondhi said. "I stress that these will be talks not negotiations."
He did not indicate if any date had been set.
One rebel leader, meanwhile, said Thaksin should be tried at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands in connection with the killings and disappearances of suspected insurgents.
Exiled Muslim rebel leader Lukman B. Lima, head of the Pattani United Liberation Organization, one of several groups fighting for a separate Muslim state in southern Thailand, said incoming interim government will not be able to fully solve the divisions in the south unless they "bring Thaksin and some of his generals ... to the court of justice in the Hague."
"Thaksin Shinawatra's hands are full of blood," Lukman said in an e-mailed message from Sweden.
Thaksin's government, which came under harsh criticism for its strong-arm approach to the violence, had repeatedly declined to hold any talks with Muslim insurgents. That decision put Thaksin at odds with Sondhi, a Muslim who had urged a peaceful approach to ending the violence.
The ousted prime minister, who was also accused of widespread corruption and abuse of power, was widely detested in Thailand's three Muslim-majority provinces, where violence erupted in January 2004. Many moderate Muslims said that the conflict could never be resolved as long as he remained in power.
The government's heavy-handed response bred discontent in the army that was one of the factors driving the military coup of Sept. 19.
"They see that only talks can end the violence," Sondhi said of the rebels. "If they are seeking cooperation with us, that kind of approach is OK with me."
To many Thais, the coup was seen as offering an opening to resolve the conflict, which has killed more than 1,700 people.
Sondhi, one of the few Muslims to rise to such a prominent position in Thailand, has been seen as a potential healing force for the conflict.
Violence has waxed and waned for decades in Thailand's three southernmost provinces — Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat — which were annexed a century ago from what had been an Islamic sultanate. They are the only provinces with Muslim majorities in predominantly Buddhist Thailand.
After violence flared in 2004, Thaksin deployed thousands of troops to the south, and shifted commanders and tactics countless times. He ordered all-out manhunts for militants, armed teachers and villagers and imposed draconian laws.
In one highly criticized operation, the government quashed a demonstration in the Tak Bai district of Narathiwat in October 2004, arresting more than 1,000 men after subduing them with gunfire. About 85 people died, most of them in custody when they suffocated after being stacked prone four to six deep on trucks that were taking them to detention.