BURI RAM: A riot erupted at the central prison of this lower northeastern province after about 100 hard-core prisoners broke furniture and smashed windows and set a fire over rumours of a Covid-19 outbreak on Sunday, Justice Minister Somsak Thepsutin said.
A number of prisoners escaped, he said, but seven have so far been recaptured.
Citing an initial report, Mr Somsak said the protest began at about 11.45am in the dining hall while warders were busy refurbishing an isolation cell for inmates infected with communicable diseases.
About 100 inmates, some of them facing a life sentence, set fire to the dining hall and demolished the visiting room for relatives. Thick smoke was seen billowing from the prison into the sky.
"The fact is that none of the prisoners in Buri Ram were infected [with the coronavirus] -- they only started this rumour to find some supporters," the minister said, adding that the cafeteria and visiting areas were among the facilities torched.
Mental health workers were later deployed to assuage prisoners "after some rumours were spread" about a Covid-19 outbreak, said Pol Maj Gen Akkaradej Pimonsri, deputy commissioner of the Provincial Police Region 3.
"The situation is under control," he added.
A number of the protesters escaped during the riot, but the exact number was yet to be confirmed, Mr Somsak said.
The breakout prompted prison officials to alert the governor and ask police and military personnel to set up checkpoints to intercept the escapees.
Mr Somsak said he was last notified that seven of the escapees had been recaptured while inmates who were not involved in the riot had been confined to their sleeping quarters.
He said Naras Savestanan, director-general of the Corrections Department, had rushed to Buri Ram to investigate.
Pol Col Narat, in a separate media interview on a helicopter flight to Buri Ram, said five people were initially reported hurt in the incident. The situation had been brought under control but details were not yet clear, he added.
He said the motive for the protest was not clear but it was initially believed the protesters had acted out of stress over the Covid-19 outbreak. Other reports said rumours had spread about an outbreak of the disease among the prisoners. Two prisoners have reportedly contracted the coronavirus in Thailand.
The Buri Ram Prison, like other prisons nationwide, has been closed to visitors to stem the coronavirus outbreak under the government's executive decree for administration in emergency situations.
Still open for service are the money deposit office and the welfare shop to take orders for food.