PATTANI, Thailand, Oct 27 - Grieving relatives sought loved ones among the dead in Thailand's restive Muslim south on Wednesday amid fears of a violent backlash after almost 80 Muslim protesters suffocated to death in army custody.
More than 300 relatives, many of them sobbing women, pored over lists of the dead, alive and unidentified outside an army barracks in Pattani province where more than 1,000 Muslim protesters are being held after Monday's violent demonstration.
"I came to pick up my dead nephew. I am sad for what has happened. I never thought this would happen," said a 58-year-old village chief from Narathiwat province where the protest erupted.
His 21-year-old nephew was among 78 male protesters who died of suffocation as they were taken in trucks from the scene of the protest in Narathiwat to the barracks 100 km (62 miles) away.
Another six were killed at the demonstration -- the worst violence since April in the restive, mostly Muslim deep south of the predominantly Buddhist kingdom.
The huge leap in the toll and the manner of the deaths are expected to fuel tension in Thailand's three southernmost provinces where 440 people have now died in a wave of violence since January.
"The situation down here will definitely turn much bloodier. Those militants who were responsible for trouble in the area will fight back harshly with suicide attacks," Nideh Waba, chairman of a religious schools association in the region, told the Bangkok Post newspaper.
"They have to kill thousands of us or hundreds of thousands of our brothers here to prevent us from standing up against this massacre. This is totally unacceptable and the prime minister must take direct responsibility," he said.
No major violence was reported in the region overnight.
Monday's victims were among 1,300 Muslim men arrested after a 1,500-strong rally was dispersed by troops firing live rounds, tear gas and water cannon outside a police station in Narathiwat.
Officials said some of the protesters were armed, and under the influence of drugs or were frail because of fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been silent since the higher toll was confirmed 24 hours after the protest was put down, faced withering criticism on Wednesday.
The Nation newspaper blamed the tragedy on Thaksin's "contempt for human rights" and his iron-fisted approach to a region that is home to most of Thailand's six million Muslims.
"Now this flawed trait of his leadership is threatening to plunge the country into the bitterest and most detrimental divide between people and state," it said.
The Bangkok Post said the tragedy could drive Muslim youths into the hands of militants "bent on creating an Islamic state in southern Thailand".
"The government must realise that brute force alone will not pacify the restive South. And it will never succeed in winning the war against Islamic militants without the support and cooperation of local Muslims".
With an election expected early next year, Thaksin is under pressure to resolve the trouble that analysts fear could create a fertile breeding ground for militant networks such as Southeast Asia's al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah.
In neighbouring Malaysia, the country's main Islamic party said Thailand risks a Muslim uprising in the south.
"This latest issue will create more instability and dissatisfaction and we are very worried that people will rise against the government," said Mohamad Hatta, chairman of the external affairs committee of the Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) - Reuters