BANGKOK—Thailand’s premier on Wednesday announced an inquiry into the death of 78 Muslim protesters who were rounded up by troops and crammed into trucks, amid a storm of protest locally and overseas.
Rights groups and the US government have demanded an inquiry into the deaths. Amnesty International said it was part of a “disturbing pattern” of excessive force against Muslims in the south of the mainly Buddhist country.
Most victims suffocated while several broke their necks when 1,300 people were stuffed into vehicles for at least six hours, after police and troops used water cannon, gunfire and tear gas to break up a demonstration on Monday.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra stopped short of an apology after blaming on Tuesday fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and drug use among protesters for the high death toll.
“We will set up a committee to investigate why they were crowded into trucks until they couldn’t breathe,” Thaksin told legislators.
“We feel sorry. We tried to take care of them well. They should not have died. There will be a committee to investigate so that we can draw lessons from this.”
Six people were killed Monday during clashes with 1,000 police and troops outside a police station at Tak Bai in Narathiwat province.
The 78 others died in the crush as they were taken to a military base some 120 kilometers away in Pattani province in trucks.
Newspaper pictures showed detainees lying face-down at least two deep on the back of an open-top truck, with their hands tied behind their backs and five soldiers standing around them.
Thaksin told legislators a public holiday meant there were too few trucks to hold the detainees, who could not breathe or drink water.
Hundreds of tearful family members gathered outside the military base Wednesday to try to learn the fate of their relatives.
“Demonstrators ran away, some jumped into the canal. Soldiers and policemen beat and kick them. They were tied up by belts or rope,” one man who witnessed the break-up of the protest told AFP.
“They were loaded in six trucks, piled on four or five deep. The reason they died was because they were beaten and injured and kept in a crowded area.”
Officials said 37 of the 78 victims from the crush had so far been identified and 14 bodies had been taken away by families.
Thaksin said 32 people were also injured, including 14 police or troops, one of them seriously. He said guns, knives and machetes were seized.
The protest was sparked by the arrest of six Muslim men accused of handing guns to rebels in the Muslim-majority south, where an insurgency has raged this year.
The latest deaths take the total to at least 414 this year amid fears they could provoke further violence in the region.