BANGKOK: Thailand has charged two soldiers with murder in the shooting of three Muslim men foraging on a mountain in the south, police said Wednesday (Dec 25), a rare push for justice that one rights group called "unprecedented".
The announcement comes after the military expressed regret last week over the killing of the unarmed civilians and said it was a case of mistaken identity in the insurgency-scarred region.
The Buddhist-majority state has been locked in a simmering conflict with Malay-Muslim militants in Thailand's south for 15 years with rebels fighting for more autonomy.
More than 7,000 people have been killed, most of them civilians from both faiths.
Cases are rarely investigated but the police chief in the southern province of Narathiwat said two soldiers turned themselves into authorities on Monday after the shooting.
They were both charged with murder but released on bail as an investigation is carried out, Major General Narin Boosaman told AFP.
"We will look at both sides for information so everyone will be treated fairly," he said.
A heavy military presence blankets the southern border area, marked by tit-for-tat attacks on checkpoints by shadowy rebel groups and lethal raids in the hunt for suspects.
The bodies of the three men were retrieved from mountainous terrain that is also believed to be an insurgent hideout because of its thick forest cover.
A sign now warns villagers about foraging there because authorities may "misunderstand", according to Human Rights Watch.
The group said the case was unprecedented in a region rife with impunity.
"Now there is a little bit of hope for justice, but it's still a long way to go," said HRW's senior Thailand researcher Sunai Phasuk.
"We don't even know how many soldiers were even involved in the shooting."
The charges come months after a separate high-profile case involving Abdulloh Esormusor, a Muslim man who was detained by the military and fell into a coma after being interrogated at a detention centre in the south.
More than a month later he died in August, sparking outcry and heaping scrutiny on military actions in a conflict that rarely makes headlines.