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Thailand: No army role in Japanese reporter death

The Associated Press
Thursday, March 24, 2011; 2:59 AM

BANGKOK -- Thai investigators said Thursday that unless new evidence emerges they have to "conclude for now" that security forces did not shoot a Japanese journalist who was killed during anti-government protests in Bangkok last year.

Reuters cameraman Hiro Muramoto, 43, was shot April 10 during a chaotic clash between protesters and soldiers. He was one of two journalists and some 90 other people killed during 10 weeks of mass protests and street clashes that turned parts of the capital into a war zone.

Investigators initially blamed security forces for Muramoto's death but in recent weeks have released reports and made statements appearing to absolve them. The indecisive findings are likely to give more fuel to critics who say the government is stalling investigations into protest-related deaths because they fear a public backlash if soldiers are found to have killed civilians.

"We have to conclude for now that the government forces did not kill Mr. Muramoto until there is new evidence to say otherwise," said Tharit Pengdith, the director-general of Thailand's Department of Special Investigation, roughly the equivalent of the FBI in the United States.

Last month, the DSI released a report saying the bullet that killed Muramoto was fired from an AK-47 rifle and could not have come from soldiers, who were armed with M16s. The conclusion contradicted earlier testimony from a police witness who told the DSI he was near Muramoto and believed the bullet was fired from military lines.

The DSI forwarded its completed investigation to the Metropolitan Police Bureau to contribute any additional evidence. A police report that was returned to the DSI last week said that police had interviewed witnesses who said the shooter's bullet did not come from the direction where soldiers were massed and that an autopsy confirmed the DSI finding that the bullet did not match the weapons used by soldiers, Tharit said.

Japanese officials have expressed frustration with the slow investigation into Muramoto's death.

Tharit said investigators would accept any new evidence and would continue searching for Muramoto's killer.

"Currently, we do not have any new clues or suspects," Tharit said, adding that the DSI would ask prosecutors for approval to end the investigation in a year if no progress is made.

The military and government have blamed armed men seen among the so-called Red Shirt protesters as being responsible for most of the deaths that occurred during last year's clashes. Still, soldiers were clearly seen firing their weapons in the direction of demonstrators during the final days of the protest, and the military even declared parts of the city "live fire" zones.

© 2011 The Associated Press