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80 prisoners choke to death in Thai trucks
Thai soldiers arrest rioters outside the Tak Bai police station in Thailand's Narathiwat province. (Reuters)

Pattani (Thailand), Oct. 26 (Reuters): Almost 80 people died in military custody in southern Thailand, suffocated while being transported in trucks to army barracks after a violent demonstration by Muslims, officials said today.

Only six people were previously believed to have been killed when police opened fire to quell rioting yesterday in the Muslim-majority region.

The huge leap in the toll, and the manner of the deaths, are bound to add to tensions and highlight the harsh methods security forces are using to quell a 10-month-old rebellion against Bangkok's rule over the region.

The gruesome incident carries echoes of the Wagon Tragedy of 1921 in India. On November 10, 1921, 71 Muslim (Mappila) prisoners were packed in a closed railway goods wagon and taken to jails in Coimbatore. Sixty one prisoners died of suffocation.

Justice ministry official Manit Sutaporn said 78 people died of suffocation, making it the bloodiest day in the region since April 28, when troops and police shot dead 106 machete-wielding militants.

'We found no wounds on their bodies,' Manit told a news conference in Pattani, a provincial capital 1,100 km south of Bangkok. He said the victims were among hundreds of Muslim men arrested after a 1,500-strong rally was dispersed from outside a police station in Narathiwat province.

The deaths appear to have occurred while the detainees, who were stripped semi-naked after their arrest, were being taken by truck to a barracks in Pattani, a five-hour journey, Major-General Sinchai Nutsatit told the news conference.

Army spokesman Akom Pongprom confirmed the toll and cause of death as suffocation. He said the bodies were being kept at the barracks.

Troops and police fired live rounds, as well as water cannon and tear gas, during a six-hour standoff with the crowd, which was demanding the release of six villagers accused of handing over government-issue shotguns to militants.

Shots were also fired from the crowd, officials said, adding that some of the protesters were under the influence of drugs or were frail because of fasting during Ramazan.

Six protesters were killed at the scene of the violence, and 20 people injured.

'This is typical,' Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said when asked about reports of scores dead. 'It's about bodies made weak from fasting. Nobody hurt them.'

Security officials justified the use of force in yesterday's clashes, saying they feared the police compound would be attacked.

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