BANGKOK, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Thailand's military admitted on Tuesday that four people killed by army rangers this week as suspected rebels had no connection to an armed Muslim separatist movement in the country's south.
Army commander-in-chief Prayuth Chan-ocha apologised to the families of the victims killed in Pattani on Sunday night and said the rangers were under pressure to respond after insurgents attacked a nearby military base with assault rifles and grenades.
The killings prompted an outpouring of anger by rights groups and southern Muslims, many of whom have deeply resent the conduct and large-scale presence of troops, which number around 40,000 in Yala, Pattani and Narthiwat provinces bordering Malaysia.
Since being deployed to the region in early 2004 to fight a formidable yet mysterious insurgent movement, Thai security forces have been accused of a litany of abuses, including torture, arbitrary arrests, rape and murder.
Local villagers are angered by what they say is a lack of any real justice for Muslims, with the authorities reluctant to prosecute rogue police, soldiers and armed guards believed to have carried out extrajudicial killings.
An army spokesman said on Monday the four men, who were in the back of a pickup truck in which a rifle was found, were killed after gunmen opened fire on troops who attempted to approach the vehicle to carry out an inspection.
The rangers returned fire, killing four and wounding three others, but the gunmen fled on a motorcycle, the spokesman said.
Deputy Prime Minister Yuthasak Sasiprapha, a retired army general, said further investigation was needed to determine whether the rangers should take the blame.
"If our officers were in fact guilty, they will have to face up to these charges and apologise," Yuthasak told reporters, adding that compensation and justice would be given to the families of the victims.
The southern army commander, Udomchai Thammasarorat, said the incident occurred because of efforts by separatists to create rifts between local people and security forces and to escalate the conflict, which has claimed 5,000 lives over the past eight years.
The latest casualty was a defence volunteer shot dead by rebels in Narathiwat on Tuesday.
Ethnic Malay Muslims represent the majority of people in the southern region, which was an independent sultanate known as Patani before it was annexed by Thailand in 1909.
The Buddhist-centred Thai state's control over the region has been the source of simmering tensions for decades.
(Reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak and Sinsiri Tiwutanond in Bangkok; Additional reporting by Surapan Boonthanom in Yala; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Ed Lane)