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Thai PM Apologizes to Nation for Deaths in South

Thailand's prime minister apologized to the families of at least 84 people killed when troops put down a demonstration in the country's mainly Muslim south, but blamed the riot on troublemakers. Thaksin Shinawatra, in a televised speech to the nation, pledged to set up an independent commission to investigate the incident and punish those who acted improperly.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra gave the speech to quell criticism at home and abroad over his handling of Monday's violence in the Muslim-dominated south.

A total of 78 Muslim men suffocated after being stuffed into trucks. They were among 1300 arrested by the authorities Monday after a demonstration in Narathiwat province to demand the release of six detained Muslim men.

At least six other people were killed when police fired guns, tear gas, and water cannons to break up the crowd.

Mr. Thaksin apologized for the deaths, which he said were accidental. He also said he would pay compensation to the families of those who died "whether they are guilty or not, because they are Thai."

The prime minister says he wants to express his sincerest regrets to the families of those who died. But he also says there were many weapons found at the scene of the demonstration, and many of those arrested were criminals with outstanding warrants.

He also promised to establish an independent commission to find the truth behind what happened. Officials who had done wrong, he said, would be punished. However, Mr. Thaksin stressed that he had an obligation to maintain law and order in the country.

Earlier Friday, Mr. Thaksin told a group of Muslim leaders the deaths should never have happened and admitted mistakes were made in halting the demonstration.

More than 430 people have died since January in the south, and the government blames the violence on Muslim rebels. However, many political analysts say some of the fighting may be due to rivalries among the police, the military and criminal gangs.

Friday morning, two bombs exploded about 90 minutes apart in Yala province in the south, injuring two civilians and 10 police.

Those blasts followed an explosion in Narathiwat Thursday night, that killed two and injured at least 20 other people.

During Friday prayers in Narathiwat, Muslims demanded justice from the government. The majority of Thais are Buddhist, but around 10 percent follow Islam and most Muslims live in the southern provinces of Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat.

Protests were held Friday in Indonesia and Malaysia, Thailand's neighbors, which have Muslim majorities, denouncing Monday's deaths. In Thailand, a peace vigil was planned for Friday night.