Thai Muslim group says direct Hamas talks helped secure release of Thai hostages

Last Updated on November 27, 2023 12:46 pm

BANGKOK, Nov 27 (Reuters) – A Thai Muslim group that spoke directly with Hamas said its efforts were key to ensuring that Thai hostages were among the first to be released in Gaza during a temporary truce with Israeli forces.

“We were the sole party that spoke to Hamas since the beginning of the war to ask for the release of Thais,” Thai-Iran Alumni Association President, Lerpong Syed told Reuters on Monday.

Three more Thais held by Hamas militants were released from Gaza on Sunday, taking to 17 the number of Thai nationals freed since the four-day truce began on Friday.

Lerpong is part of a group of Thai Muslims convened by the country’s parliamentary speaker Wan Muhammad Noor Matha, which travelled to Tehran in October and directly spoke with a Hamas representative. While not official negotiations, the parallel talks were not condemned by Thailand’s government.

“If Thailand only relied on the foreign ministry or asked other countries for help – the chances of getting released with the first group would be very low,” Lerpong said, adding that other countries with hostages such as the United States, Germany and France have more influence.

Thailand’s foreign ministry could not immediately be reached for comment on Lerpong’s claim of credit, but Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara separately thanked all involved for the releases so far in a post on social media platform X.

“Congratulations to all and our deep gratitude for all the efforts in securing their release. We continue to call for the release of the remaining Thais still held hostage,” the foreign minister’s post said.

Lerpong said the Thai-Iran group conveyed to Hamas during a three-hour meeting last month that Thais were not party to the conflict and should be freed, after which the Palestinian militant group gave their assurances that Thais would be released first and unconditionally once there was a ceasefire.

The temporary truce is first halt in fighting in the seven weeks since Hamas killed 1,200 people and took about 240 hostages back into Gaza.

Before the war, around 30,000 Thai labourers worked in Israel’s agriculture sector, making up one of the largest migrant worker groups in the country.

“Our team hit the right spot from the beginning by going to Iran and talking directly to Hamas,” said another member of the Thai group, veteran politician Areepen Uttarasin.

However, a source briefed on the talks said the hostage agreement was mediated by Qatar and Egypt in a negotiation track that was opened when Thailand’s foreign minister visited Qatar on Oct. 31.

Iran has also said it facilitated the release, while Hamas has said the release was due to the efforts of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.

Asked about Iran’s claim, a Thai foreign ministry spokesperson said on Saturday that: “we have provided lists since the beginning to everyone,” including Qatar, Egypt, Israel and Iran,” adding “Different actors would have different influence on Hamas.”

Thailand’s population of 70 million are predominantly Buddhist and have largely co-existed peacefully with its Muslim minority, although a long-running separatist insurgency in the south periodically flares into violence.

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