With most ordinary people too scared to go anywhere near chickens, 400 soldiers were drafted into Suphan Buri province northwest of Bangkok, Deputy Agriculture Minister Newin Chidchop told reporters. A hundred prisoners were also brought in.

"We have had labour problems. It is difficult to find labourers as after the bird flu outbreak was confirmed, many of them are avoiding working on farms," Newin said.

All chickens in the province, a major area of production in a Thai industry that raises one billion chickens a year and earns $1.5 billion in exports, will be killed. 

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra went to talk to worried farmers in the province on Sunday, promising them compensation, help with starting up again once the epidemic was defeated and a suspension of their debts.

"We have had labour problems. It is difficult to find labourers as after the bird flu outbreak was confirmed, many of them are avoiding working on farms"

Newin Chidchop,
Thai Deputy Agriculture Minister

Thailand, which fears the disease and the import bans that have choked off overseas chicken sales will devastate its poultry industry, has been killing hens by tying them up in fertiliser sacks and burying them alive. 

The government, fighting off allegations it covered up an outbreak of bird flu which the WHO fears could generate an epidemic worse than SARS, is promising swift and ruthless action. 

But experts are wondering where it will emerge next after springing up in Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Cambodia and Vietnam. 

Six people have died in Vietnam and two human cases have been confirmed in Thailand. 

"There's no denying the disease is spreading," Anton Rychener, Vietnam representative for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, said.

Children at risk

Vietnam's latest known human case was an eight-year-old girl in the southern metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City.

Children appear most at risk - five of Vietnam's six dead and both Thailand's were children - but nobody knows why and the only comfort to experts at the moment is that all appeared to have contracted it from sick chickens. 

The World Health Organisation says if the avian virus combines with a human flu virus, the consequences could be devastating - a new strain which could sweep through a human population with no immunity to it.

"I think we can solve the problem in Thailand within 30 days but for the negotiations with EU, our trading partner, it will probably take a bit longer than that, but not much,"

Jakrapob Penkair,
Government spokesman

The main problem now is how to stop it spreading, with the WHO calling the near-simultaneous outbreaks in Asia "historically unprecedented". 

Thailand has invited senior health and agriculture officials from Asian countries and international agencies fighting the outbreak to a meeting to discuss such issues on Wednesday. 

The government has said chicken exports could resume to Japan and the European Union, Thailand's biggest customers, within weeks, although the EU has said it could be months before they resume.

"I think we can solve the problem in Thailand within 30 days but for the negotiations with EU, our trading partner, it will probably take a bit longer than that, but not much," said chief government spokesman Jakrapob Penkair.