updated 12/7/2007 6:23:18 PM ET 2007-12-07T23:23:18

Myanmar’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters killed more than twice as many people as the junta has acknowledged, a U.N. investigator said Friday, citing at least 31 dead.

Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the U.N. human rights expert assigned to the country, said he documented 16 people killed in the September crackdown along with the 15 dead already reported by the government.

But he said the actual death toll was likely much higher.

“Several reports of killings indicate that the figure provided by the authorities may greatly underestimate the reality,” he said.

“There are a number of incidents where no names were reported but where there were allegations of groups of people reportedly killed, which have also been shared,” Pinheiro said in a report released by the U.N. on Friday.

Bodies allegedly secretly cremated
Pinheiro, who visited Myanmar on Nov. 11-15, said “credible sources” reported a large number of bodies wrapped in plastic and rice bags that were burned in the early hours of the final days of September. The burning took place at the Ye Way crematorium in Yangon. Authorities blocked Pinheiro from visiting.

“Sources indicate that it was not usual practice for the crematorium to operate during the hours in question, that normal employees were instructed to keep away, and that the facility was operated on those nights by state security personnel or state-supported groups,” Pinheiro said.

At least one report indicated that some of those cremated had shaved heads, indicating they were monks, and some had signs of serious injuries.

Myanmar had earlier said only 10 people died during the nationwide suppression of demonstrations led by Buddhist monks angry at continued military rule of the Southeast Asian nation also known as Burma.

Pinheiro said the report lists the names of “653 persons detained, 74 persons disappeared and 16 killed — in addition to the list of 15 dead provided by the authorities.”

His report includes details of a visit to the Htain Bin crematorium, where authorities said 14 corpses were transferred from the Yangon General Hospital.

The bodies were registered and cremated, but three of the dead could not be identified. Eleven of those cremated died as a result of firearm wounds.

Expert says many died in junta custody
Pinheiro also said he received “credible reports” from a monk detained between Sept. 27 and Oct. 5 that at least 14 individuals died in custody. These included eight monks and one boy, who died on the first day, the monk told Pinheiro, adding that the deaths were due to poor conditions in detention.

Pinheiro said he heard that Win Shwe, a member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy movement, died during questioning in Plate Myot Police Center, near Mandalay, on Oct. 9. His body was not returned to his family, Pinheiro said.

U Thilavantha, the deputy abbot of the Yuzana Kyaungthai monastery in Myitkyina, allegedly was beaten to death in detention on Sept. 26, Pinheiro said.

Pinheiro said he expressed his concern to Myanmar’s government regarding the allegations and hoped future investigations could shed light on what happened.

“The allegation of the burning of a large amount of bodies ... is very disturbing,” Pinheiro said. “It may explain why the government has not been able so far to provide information on the whereabouts of a number of detainees and missing persons.

“It may also explain the numerous reports received about the removal of dead bodies by the security forces during the crackdowns and night raids on some monasteries.”

He urged the government to return the remains of all the dead to their families, so that they can be given proper funerals.

Monks' relatives allegedly seized as hostages
On Monday, national police chief Brig. Gen. Khin Yi said that 2,927 people, including 596 monks, were detained in connection with the protests, but that only 80 people, including 21 monks, remain in custody.

Pinheiro estimated the government arrested 3,000 to 4,000 people in September and October and that between 500 and 1,000 are still detained.

Other credible reports convinced Pinheiro that relatives of people in hiding were seized as hostages by security forces during night raids, he said.

Earlier Friday, Human Rights Watch also said the military killed far more than it has acknowledged. The New York-based group said in a report that it had documented the deaths of 20 protesters, but believes that many more Buddhist monks, students and other civilians were killed.

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