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Thai PM meets Saudi envoy to settle 20-year row

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand’s prime minister met with Saudi Arabia’s charge d’affairs on Monday to seek an end to a bloody row over a jewellery theft that led to the deaths of three envoys and a two-decade severing of diplomatic ties.

Thai PMr Abhisit Vejjajiva in Bangkok in this August 6, 2009 file photo. Thailand's prime minister met with Saudi Arabia's charge d'affairs on Monday to seek an end to a bloody row over a jewellery theft that led to the deaths of three envoys and a two-decade severing of diplomatic ties. REUTERS/Sukree Sukplang/Files

The dispute stemmed from the theft of 90 kg (198 lb) of jewels worth $20 million by a Thai janitor working in the palace of a Saudi prince in 1989. A large number of the gems, including a rare blue diamond, are yet to be recovered.

The theft of the Saudi heirlooms remains one of Thailand’s biggest unsolved mysteries and was followed by a bloody trail of destruction that has seen some of Thailand’s top police generals implicated.

A year after the theft, Saudi diplomats in Thailand were killed in three separate assassinations in a single night.

A month later, a Saudi businessman who witnessed one of the shootings disappeared and in 1994, the wife and child of a jewellery dealer suspected of selling some of the stolen gems were kidnapped and murdered.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on Monday said the investigations would continue and assured the Saudi envoy there would be no interference in the judicial process.

Saudi Arabia downgraded diplomatic relations in 1990 and is still pushing for the return of the blue diamond and for prosecutors to solve the case of businessman Mohammad al-Ruwaili’s disappearance, for which the statute of limitations is due to expire next month.

Thailand is eager to normalise ties with the oil-rich Kingdom after a spat that has cost billions of dollars in two-way trade and tourism revenues and the loss of jobs to tens of thousands of Thai migrant workers.


“We are trying to improve relations. On the legal cases, we are watching closely,” Abhisit told reporters.

“The government will not interfere in the judicial process and will allow law enforcement authorities to do their work...I assured (the diplomat) this process will be straightforward,” he said, adding that the alleged involvement of senior police chiefs had affected Riyadh’s confidence.

Thailand stands to gain from any improvement in relations, but the Saudis want the case solved and the blue diamond returned before that happens.

According to Commerce Ministry data, Saudi imports from Thailand totalled $1.8 billion in 2008 and $1.6 billion from January to November 2009.

Better ties might also allow more of its citizens to work in Saudi Arabia, which at one point employed as many as 300,000 Thais before relations were downgraded. There are currently about 15,000 Thais employed in the country.

Attempts to normalise relations hit a hurdle when Thai authorities returned some of the jewels, most of which the Saudis said were fake.

Questions have been raised about the whereabouts of the famous blue diamond and why successive Thai governments and the police have been reluctant to trace it.

Back in 1994, then Charge d’Affaires Mohammed Said Khoja said in a dinner speech that the murdered Saudi diplomats were “silenced” and he believed that if the person in possession of the blue diamond was assured they would not be humiliated, it would be returned.

Additional reporting by Ambika Ahuja; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Jason Szep and Sanjeev Miglani