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Thai Leader Rethinks Tough Security Policy in Muslim South

The Thai prime minister has announced a partial troop withdrawal from Thailand's restive southern provinces. The conciliatory move marks a turnaround in the government's much criticized hard-line security policy.

Thaksin Shinawatra, the Thai prime minister, on Thursday announced a redeployment of troops battling violence and separatist agitation in the largely Muslim South. He said some of the current 20,000 troops would be withdrawn from the region, and others would be moved to peacekeeping and development duties.

The announcement, which follows two days of criticism by lawmakers of the government's tough stance on the unrest, marks a major policy change.

Just weeks earlier, Mr. Thaksin had threatened to withhold development funds for communities where Muslim separatists are active. That suggestion was roundly criticized and later withdrawn.

The government has also faced accusations of human rights abuses by the military, which rights groups and Muslim leaders say have created a climate of fear in the region.

Surin Pitsuwan is a Muslim, and a member of parliament for the opposition Democrat Party. He says the government cannot ignore the allegations of abuse.

"We will keep the pressure up, and I think the people themselves, various N.G.O.s [non-government organizations] and families, will certainly keep asking the questions that the government will have (to) clarify," he said.

But Mr. Surin, a former foreign minister, welcomed Mr. Thaksin's change of policy as a step in the right direction.

"It's a cause for optimism among many of us. Whether or not this optimism will be fulfilled, that remains to be seen," he said. "But at least there have been signs of accommodation, signs of opening up, signs of recognition of past mistakes, and I think this is a good beginning."

Separately on Thursday, three Thai Muslims were sentenced to life imprisonment on charges related to an attack on a police station on January seventh, 2004. Two other Thais and a Malaysian national also received long prison sentences in that case.

The January seventh attack came just three days after Muslim militants attacked a military depot in the South, an event seen as the start of the most recent round of violence.