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Facing harsh denunciation from Islamic leaders across Southeast Asia, Thailand's prime minister defended his security forces Wednesday in the deaths of 78 young Muslims in custody, maintaining that the troops used a "soft approach" in quelling a riot.

Thaksin Shinawatra also said security forces "did not fire a single round into the crowd," though at least seven other people apparently died from police bullets in clashes Monday that threaten to worsen sectarian unrest in the Muslim-dominated south of this mostly Buddhist country.

Police and soldiers detained about 1,300 people after the riot that erupted when a crowd marched on a police station to demand freedom for six men accused of giving arms to Muslim separatists. The prisoners were jammed into trucks to be driven to army camps, and 78 died, most of them from suffocation, Justice Ministry officials have said.

The deaths, which were not announced until a day after the
riot, brought thunderous criticism and warnings that Thailand's government is worsening the frictions with Muslims. Thaksin has been repeatedly accused of using excessive force in dealing with unrest in the south.

Since January, more than 400 people in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat provinces have been slain, many of them security personnel or officials. Authorities blame the violence on Islamic separatists.

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