PATTANI, Thailand -- At least 78 Muslim detainees suffocated or were crushed to death after police rounded up 1,300 people and packed them into trucks following a riot in southern Thailand. Islamic leaders accused troops yesterday of overreacting and warned the deaths could worsen sectarian violence.
The arrests followed a melee outside a police station, where protesters had demanded the release of six Muslim men accused of giving weapons to Islamic separatists. Six people were shot to death during the riot Monday, apparently by security forces.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, speaking as rumors of the suffocations circulated but before the deaths were officially announced, tried to blame the casualties on dawn-to-dusk fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
"There are some who died because they were fasting, and they were crammed in tight," Thaksin said. "It's a matter of their bodies becoming weak. Nobody did anything to them."
But the death toll shocked moderate Muslim leaders who accused security forces of overreacting -- a charge they have repeatedly made as the government has failed to halt the violence that has claimed more than 400 lives this year in the Muslim-dominated south.
"I am in shock," said Abdulraman Abdulsamad, chairman of the Islamic Council of Narathiwat, the province where the unrest occurred. "I cannot say what is going to happen, but I believe that hell will break out."
Violence has troubled overwhelmingly Buddhist Thailand's three Muslim-majority southern provinces for decades, but it has worsened this year. Residents claim they are discriminated against by the central government.
As news of the tragedy spread, six people were shot and seriously wounded in separate attacks yesterday. The victims included an assistant village chief and her husband.
The army earlier declared a curfew in Narathiwat, with Thaksin calling the situation "volatile."
The dead were among 1,300 people arrested after six hours of skirmishing with authorities. Witnesses saw the prisoners stripped to the waist with their hands tied behind their backs and herded onto trucks to be driven to army camps.
Military and Justice Ministry officials said yesterday that 78 of those transported on the trucks died en route, most suffocated by the crush of people piled atop one another. Some were kept in the trucks for as long as six hours.
Dr. Pornthip Rojanasunan, a Justice Ministry forensics specialist, said most perished from suffocation and some from dehydration. Major General Sinchai Nujsathit, deputy commander of the Fourth Army region, said suffocations occurred "because we had more than 1,300 people packed into the six-wheel trucks."
Lieutenant General Pisarn Wattanawongkhiri, Sinchai's commander, said 25 army trucks and others hired from private contractors were used to transport the detainees.
Manit Suthaporn, a Justice Ministry official, linked fasting to the deaths. "This, combined with the heat -- they were in the trucks for five to six hours, and it was crowded," Manit said.
The death toll was the highest since April 28, when police and soldiers killed 107 suspected militants armed with machetes who attacked police posts in a failed attempt to seize firearms, then holed up in a mosque.
Visiting the scene of the riot, Thaksin praised the tough police response and said authorities "have no choice but to use force to suppress them."
Authorities have blamed the violence on a renewed Islamic separatist insurgency. Most of those killed have been victims of drive-by shootings or bomb attacks directed at police and government officials.
The trouble began Monday when a crowd of about 2,000 people hurled rocks, overturned vehicles, and tried to storm the police station and a nearby government office during a six-hour riot. Police and soldiers fired water cannons and tear gas, then shot into the air.
After finally subduing the rioters, police and soldiers kicked, pummeled, and in some cases smashed rifle butts into young men as they were forced to slither bare-chested across a road on their bellies to the trucks which took them away.
At the military camp where many of the prisoners were being held, people came all day to report missing relatives who might be among the detainees.
Investigators searched for weapons at the riot scene and in a nearby river, where divers also looked for bodies. Thaksin said 20 pistols, seven assault rifles, and three hand grenades were recovered.
Neighboring Malaysia -- a predominantly Muslim country with close ethnic links to Thailand's southern Muslims -- expressed concern. "We hope the government of Thailand will be able to manage this crisis so that it will not spread and inflame further violence," Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said.
Foreign human rights groups urged the Thai government to investigate the deaths and criticized the way Thaksin's government has handled the violence.
"The Thai government has handled unrest so far in a way that almost ensures that it is going to increase," said Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.
Amnesty International urged Thailand to grant the detainees lawyers and medical care.