AT LEAST 78 people were suffocated or crushed to death after being arrested and packed into police lorries following a riot in southern Thailand, officials said yesterday.
The news dramatically increased the death toll from the latest eruption of violence in Thailand's Muslim-dominated south to 84.
Officials had said earlier that six people were shot to death during clashes on Monday at a police station in Narathiwat province.
Justice Ministry forensics expert Dr Pornthip Rojanasunan told a news conference yesterday that she and a team of doctors had conducted autopsies on 78 bodies at an army camp in Pattani province and found that most had perished from suffocation.
The dead were among some 1,300 people that military officials said that they had arrested on Monday following the police station riot.
Fourth Army deputy commander Major General Sinchai Nujsathit said that the victims may have died from suffocation "because we had more than 1,300 people packed into the six-wheel trucks."
He did not say how many vehicles had been used.
Justice Ministry deputy permanent secretary Manit Suthaporn said that the victims had probably suffocated because they were piled on top of each other in the vehicles.
The violence erupted on Monday when about 2,000 Muslim youths demonstrated outside the police station in Takbai district, demanding the release of six detained men.
Police and military forces tried to disperse the crowd with gunshots, water cannons and tear gas.
Six people were killed and several injured in the melee, army commander General Pisarn Wattanawongkhiri said yesterday.
More than 400 people have been killed in southern Thailand since January in attacks that the authorities blame on a renewed Islamist separatist insurgency.
Islamic leaders accused Thai troops of overreacting to the police station protest and warned that it could trigger an upswing in violence.
"I am in shock," Islamic Council of Narathiwat chairman Abdulraman Abdulsamad said on learning of the suffocation deaths.
"I cannot say what going to happen, but I believe that hell will break out."
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra briefly visited the region late on Monday, where he praised the security forces and vowed tough action against suspected Islamist separatists.
Mr Thaksin said that the authorities had announced a curfew in parts of Narathiwat after the violence "because the situation is still volatile."
Meanwhile, investigators searched for weapons at the riot site and in a nearby river, where divers also looked for bodies.
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