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Burmese inmates stage violent jailbreak

Eight Burmese prisoners staged a getaway from a Thai provincial jail last night after killing a lecturer, wounding the prison governor and taking him and six other officials hostage.

They were heading for the Thai-Burma border town of Ratchaburi, from where they have demanded safe passage back to their country.

The inmates, armed with pistols and dynamite, seized the jail governor and the other officials at 11am at the provincial prison in Samut Sakorn, 30km southwest of Bangkok. The prison has 2,600 inmates. They demanded a get-away vehicle, food and permission to drive to the border.

Thai authorities provided the inmates with a pick-up truck late in the evening, which all eight prisoners squeezed in with their seven hostages, two of whom, including the governor, were wounded. The hostage-takers, who police said were all facing trial for criminal offences including drug trafficking and murder, identified themselves as belonging to Burma's Mon and Karen ethnic minority groups.

As they drove west with their hostages, pursued by hundreds of police, the ringleader phoned a local radio station and gave a running commentary on the chase.

"We just want to go home," said Maung Win, 25, who demanded the police back off and asked for a new mobile phone, as the battery on his was running out."We'll let the hostages go two by two," he said.

One freed hostage confirmed that a total of four had been released, while three other captives, including the governor, Somwong Sirivej, who is suffering a gunshot wound to the hand, were still in the truck.

"Please don't do anything. These people are just immigrants. Please save our lives!" Mr Somwong shouted from the pick-up as the Ruam Duey Chuay Kan radio station interviewed Maung Win.

After their getaway, police discovered that visiting lecturer Khom Chitthongphan had been killed. Dr Santi Khitjaluek, said the lecturer had been shot in the head and the leg. The prison break reportedly started as Khom was lecturing the inmates on Buddhism.

Police said they tried to negotiate with the gunmen outside the jail after their vehicle halted at the gate, but the talks broke down over the number of hostages to be released before they set off for the border. Provincial police chief Major-General Surasri Sunthornsarathoon said the talks had taken place as Mr Somwong sat on the lap of the driver, who was clutching a hand grenade.

The jailbreak is the latest of several violent incidents in Thailand involving Burmese, of whom there are an estimated one million living and working illegally in the country.

In October last year, five Burmese dissidents seized Rangoon's Embassy in Bangkok. Last January, 10 Burmese rebels seized Ratchburi Hospital, 80km west of Bangkok, holding 500 hundred staff and patients hostage. Thai commandos rushed the hospital and killed all 10.Copyright (c) 2000. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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